I've been tuned-in to the world of Free/ Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) for about 10 years, now. Nine years ago this month I started the oss4lib (Open Source Systems for Libraries; www.oss4lib.org) site and mailing list to bring FLOSS to the attention of librarians, highlighting new releases of free systems of use in libraries. No other news outlet was doing that. Over these past 10 years I've traveled often to speak at conferences about the potential value of FLOSS in libraries to a wide range of audiences. I'm proud of having stood up for FLOSS in libraries back when it seemed a controversial thing to do, but I don't say all this to brag or to assert any kind of ownership. Today, there are hundreds of librarians around the world who understand the benefits of FLOSS, advocate for it, use it where they are, and speak publicly and eloquently about its advantages. They do all those things far better than I ever did. That's a beautiful thing!
Because I've been at it a bit longer than most, though, I've noticed some patterns in how perceptions and misperceptions about FLOSS form and guide decision making in libraries. This month I hope to rectify some of these misperceptions because they can get in the way of making good decisions. They might sound basic or obvious, but since you're already reading this, I hope you'll give me the benefit of the doubt and keep these considerations in mind whenever you hear about FLOSS.
FLOSS Is About Freedom
When you hear "open source," "free software," or "FLOSS," don't think about cost--think instead about freedom. According to the free software definition (www.fsf.org/ licensing/essays/free-sw.html/view), software is free if you have the ability to do the following:
* Run the program.
* Study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs.
* Redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
* Improve the program, and release your improvements to the public so that the whole community benefits.
The free software definition also shows how these freedoms and their preconditions build upon each other. You cannot study a program or adapt and improve it without access to its source code. Redistributing copies would be useless if the freedom for your neighbor to run the program didn't come along with the program. Releasing improvements to the public is essentially the combination of acting on the freedom to adapt software with the freedom to redistribute copies.
These "four freedoms" are the essential core of what FLOSS is all about, and if you only remember one thing after reading this article, this is it, so I'll repeat myself: FLOSS provides the freedom to run, study, adapt, improve, and redistribute software. If you can't do one of these, it's not FLOSS.
There are a few more points worth mentioning. The first is about that awkward acronym I'm using, "FLOSS." This philosophy of software freedom, long known as "free software," has been around for a long time, and its deepest adherents reject the phrase "open source" (fashioned later in the game to appeal to commercial interests who never like the word "free") because it doesn't require people to remember that freedom is the important part. For example, for a long time, I only talked about open source, and that's reflected in the name of the site I started, oss4lib (Open Source Systems for Libraries). A lot of people I've met over the years know about oss4lib, but I find that I still have to talk about freedom because people tend to get caught up on the word "free" and think about cost instead. Don't let this happen to you! Now I use "FLOSS" because it starts with "Free," and because it's awkward and sounds a bit funny, I hope that people remember better that it's all about freedom.
Another key point about the four freedoms is that they work as a test for evaluating licenses. Most of us don't work in environments where everything we do with software we can do with FLOSS, and it's not always clear how to move from a fully proprietary world toward using more FLOSS in our work. …