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Free and Open Source Software

Keith W. Miller, University of Illinois at Springfield
Jeffrey Voas, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Tom Costello, UpStreme

Pages: pp. 14-16

Abstract—Historically, free and open source software (FOSS) has been a movement widely thought to be outside the mainstream of commercial software. But now, corporate entities are big players in FOSS. This introduction looks at how FOSS got to where it is today and presents the theme articles in this special issue on FOSS. The articles cover open source in law enforcement and higher education, open source for geographic information systems, and open source services.

Keywords—Free and open source software, FOSS, information technology

A Review of FOSS

A few of you might be old enough to remember when "free" was the standard term for software. In the 1950s and early 1960s, computer software was mainly the concern of academics and corporate researchers, so it was treated more like scholarly work (in the public domain) than a proprietary asset. Computer manufacturers focused on selling hardware, so they threw in the software for free. Both IBM and DEC had active user groups that shared tips and software with other users.

In the second half of the 1960s, as software costs increased for manufacturers, software was either bundled with hardware or priced separately. Licensing agreements and copyright protection became common ways to legally protect software. In 1966, the UK issued what was probably the first software patent. 2

In 1984, Richard Stallman launched the GNU project ( Stallman, who also founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF), has been an outspoken and controversial advocate for free software. GNU's General Public License (GPL), which has several different versions, has been widely influential. However, GNU's success didn't lead to a monolithic movement led by Stallman; rather, different groups have championed slightly different licensing agreements.

Another important group, founded in 1998, is the Open Source Initiative (OSI). Although both FSF and OSI promote alternatives to proprietary, closed-source software, relations haven't always been cordial between the two organizations. Stallman has accused the OSI of ignoring important freedoms in favor of corporations, while OSI proponents have criticized Stallman for his overly rigid "social activism" (see Despite their distinct philosophical views of FOSS, Stallman and others insist that FSF and OSI, as well as other independent producers of FOSS, are allies.

Some of the distinctions between different kinds of FOSS licenses require detailed study, which we don't have space for in this brief introduction. However, some common themes are noteworthy. Unless a piece of software is declared public domain (no copyright protection claimed at all), FOSS legal protections are based on copyright law. All FOSS gives users access to the source code.

One distinction is important to mention: some FOSS licenses (chief among them, FSF's GPL licenses) require that any software that uses software protected under the GPL must be distributed under a GPL license. This is the "viral" and "copyleft" provision. Some open source advocates consider copyleft optional. Thus, OSI accepts FSF's GPL license, but it also endorses some licenses that FSF rejects.

Despite a good deal of controversy between the different organizations involved in promoting FOSS, there's a long list of thriving FOSS projects. If you or your organization uses GNU/Linux, TeX, Mozilla Firefox, the Apache server, the Open Office suite, or Java, then FOSS is part of your technical world.

FOSS has also inspired many academic researchers. Economists are interested in the business model of entities that often give away products. Ethicists study the motivations of programmers involved in FOSS projects and the philosophical impact of a viable alternative to proprietary software. Computer scientists are examining the technical effectiveness of a development model that employs "many hands," only a few of whom make their living developing or maintaining FOSS. And never forget that FOSS and commercial software need each other; the competition between the two keeps the software marketplace in check with added diversity and innovation.

With that as a background as to how we got to where we are today, we now introduce the four articles selected for this special issue of IT Pro.

In This Issue

The first article, "Open Source Software Considerations for Law Enforcement," by Mun-Wai Hon, Greg Russell, and Michael Welch, explores the benefits of FOSS for state and local governments. It presents the three key benefits to such organizations: low initial acquisition costs, the ability to analyze source code for backdoors and other security risks, and system interoperability. Then it discusses generic complaints about FOSS—such as the lack of technical support—but also mentions complaints specific to law enforcement, such as the lack of relevant applications. Another issue it raises is the difficulty FOSS users face when they're more accustomed to Micro-soft and other widely used commercial products, which have a more universal look and feel.

The second article, "Free/Open Services," deals with services instead of software. The authors, G.R. Gangadharan, Vincenzo D'Andrea, and Michael Weiss, propose applying the concepts behind FOSS to services to advance the field of service-oriented computing. They argue that by having access to the source code of the interfaces, novel composite and derivative services can be created. Although they admit that their proposal is far from endorsed by traditional service providers, they argue that their vision will expand the number of services available, widen the adoption of computing services in general, and be a benefit to the community of subscribers who rely on access to computing services.

In "Community Source Software in Higher Education," Harry Jiannan Wang, Jon Blue, and Mathieu Plourde discuss the increased use of FOSS in higher education. More specifically, they discuss community source—code that's created by a broad set of volunteers—in contrast to commercial open source. Here, the authors narrow their focus further to community source that's being developed for and by educators. To better explain their story to present practical experiences with FOSS, the authors walk us through the Sakai learning and collaboration system via a case study showing how the University of Delaware put the principles of FOSS into practice.

The last article is "Open Source for Enterprise Geographic Information Systems," by David A. Garbin and James L. Fisher. It presents yet another case study where open source software addresses a concern of public importance: the use of geographic information systems for analytic modeling to digest weather and climate information and to predict how events are likely to unfold. For example, users can take predicted weather patterns and overlay them on existing land infrastructures (such as roads, bridges, or buildings) to determine what is likely to be most affected. The authors go on to argue that FOSS solutions for this important area of societal impact are more cost effective and flexible that existing commercial offerings, once again showing the cost benefit to the public sector from FOSS.

We hope you find the articles in this special issue insightful. We welcome your feedback.


We may identify certain products or companies in this document, but such identification does not imply recommendation by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or other agencies of the US government, nor does it imply that the products or companies identified are necessarily the best available for the purpose. This article was not coauthored by Jeffrey Voas as a NIST employee. It reflects Voas's opinion—not the opinions of the US Department of Commerce or NIST.


About the Authors

Keith W. Miller is the Schewe Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. His research interests include computer ethics, software testing, and online learning. He's the editor in chief of IEEE Technology and Society. Contact him at
Jeffrey Voas is a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). He also serves as the IEEE Computer Society's second vice president (2010) and is IEEE Division VI's Director-Elect (2010). Contact him at
Tom Costello is CEO of UpStreme, a business and technology management consultancy with practice specialties in enterprise strategies and software logistics. Contact him at or
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