Why You Should Take a Look at the Free / Open Source Software Movement

When talking about free / open source software, I am often surprised at the number of people today who still say to me – “if it is free it cannot be of any value”. Or those who ask – “what exactly is open source software?”. If you pardon the shameless use of the phrase, “long live free software” (or “vive le logiciel libre!”) ought to be the battle cry of the free software movement. Indeed, although not put that way by most proponents, that is the general sentiment.

What is free software? The Free Software Foundation maintains a definition of ‘free software’. At the heart of this definition they assert:

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this. …

Open Source, on the other hand is related but not synonymous. While there are several definitions offered on the web, the Open Source Initiative describes open source as: “… a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.” And it offers a detailed definition of its own that largely focuses on distribution terms for open source software.

There are several innovative open source software projects that provide options for commercial off the shelf (COTS) software products. These software systems often run on a variety of operating systems; some even run on Windows. So here is a list of my favourite projects (in no particular order):

  • The Linux operating system itself; which powers hundreds of thousands of computers world-wide – from servers to desktop machines. If you are interested in running Linux on your desktop or laptop I would recommend you checkout the Ubuntu distribution for ease of use – you would be amazed on the range of machines you can run this operating system on. But before you try to install this on a laptop, I suggest you check out compatibility. My son recently got an old IBM 240 laptop that had been sitting unused for a few years running with a version of Ubuntu!
  • Apache – most know Apache as the workhorse of web servers; but the Apache Software Foundation actually supports a number of open source projects that are at the heart of providing a range of tools for developers and computer users.
  • Several open source database systems such as MySQL (recently acquired by Sun for $1 billion), Postgres and other OS databases.
  • FreeMind – a Java-based mind mapping tool.
  • e-learning platforms and Learning Management Systems such as Moodle and Sakai
  • ePresence – an interactive webcasting, conferencing and collaboration platform from the Knowledge Media Design Institute at the University of Toronto.
  • Firefox – the open source browser credited with pushing advancements such as tabbed browsing and add-ons into the browser market.
  • OpenOffice – a serious alternative to other office suites – with the ability to read and write common office formats (be careful with Office 2007 file formats though) and to write PDF files at the click of a button.
  • WordPress – oh yes, lets not forget the blogging platform that allows us to produce Slaw. You should note, as well, that WordPress can act as a content management system, allowing you to maintain several pages on your own website.
  • Acrophobia – which allows you to set up a server in your organization that will give everyone the ability to create PDF files. You print files to acrophobia and they are returned to you through email in a few seconds. Acrophobia is a product of open source enthusiasts in the legal community. Acrophobia is a project of the ILTA Open Source Software Peer Group.
  • PhpBB – a widely used tool for creating discussion forums.
  • Wikis – where do we start? There is MediaWiki (the platform on which Wikipedia is built), Twiki and several other open source wiki tools.
  • Portal platforms such as: Drupal, Joomla, Plone

The open source movement is not alone in this quest. Several major corporations have joined and have provided support for the movement in one form or another – including: IBM, Novell, and Sun Microsystems. There are also a number of companies born out of the OS movement itself – such as Red Hat.

If you want to explore further, you can find a more complete list of projects at open source living. If you are looking for alternative to commercial software to run on your Linux desktop, you should visit the Linux Alternative Project. And, to find a variety of projects – try searching Freshmeat or SourceForge. Finally, if you want to get involved with other folks in the legal community with a willingness to explore Open Source – try the ILTA Open Source Software Peer Group.

If you haven’t looked seriously at open source, give it a try. Happy hunting and exploring.


  1. Great article – thanks for the time in putting together the information/thoughts.

  2. Yes, thank you for putting this together. While I have supported the Open Source movement in principle, and benefited from some of the tools that have been produced, I haven’t taken the time to look closely at this movement.

    And I had no idea until I saw this article just now that some governments are working towards adopting OS across their agencies as a way to reduce operating costs.

  3. Yes Connie, governments in some jurisdictions have made open source the number one preference. Staff in those organizations have to justify purchasing COTS solutions where no open source alternative exists.

  4. Great article Joel. Readers may be interested to know that some law firms are already using Open Source technology. Here at Field Law we use Joomla! as our intranet development tool.

    “Joomla! is one of the most powerful Open Source Content Management Systems on the planet. It is used all over the world for everything from simple websites to complex corporate applications. Joomla! is easy to install, simple to manage, and reliable”

    Joomla, along with other Open Source tech, has an abundance of useful bits – like a MySQL database plug in that allows our slightly converted MS Access Library catalogue to be searched via our Intranet – with no $$ outlay, only a bit of internal PHP and MySQL development time.

    The adoption of this bit of Open Source at our firm has definitely been a success.

  5. Great post!

    One small correction: Linux is not an operating system, it’s a kernel. It’s most commonly combined with the GNU system to form the GNU/Linux operating system.