Free Can Be Good: Add Open Source to Software Considerations

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Illustration by Viktor Koen

Lawyers looking to cut software costs have begun dipping their toes into a unique category of free software called open source. The combination of tight technology budgets, popularity of open source programs in the business world, and maturity and success of the category has made these programs worth a hard look in many settings.

Open source (sometimes referred to as free and open source) has been called both a type of software license and a philosophical movement. It’s also been called the software that powers the Internet. Many websites run on Apache servers using open source software, and Google’s search engine uses the open source Linux operating system.

Underlying open source is the idea of “free.” That’s free as in freedom, in that you can modify the actual source code of the software and use it with little or no restriction. Also “free as in beer,” in that you can obtain the software without cost.

The software is created, maintained and supported by a volunteer community of programmers. There is no software vendor. The community applies one of a limited number of open source software licenses to a program, all of which have some common terms such as the right to access source code and the absence of warranties. If you use the software, you accept the terms without negotiation.

If you need help or support, in most cases you will go back to the volunteer community involved. Don’t expect an 800 number, although you might find the actual programmer of your software answering your question and perhaps even making a change you need.

Why would a lawyer or law firm consider this type of software? Open source has been around for many years, and some proven programs have become standard in their niches. They also offer free alternatives to expensive programs for which you might have only a limited need. Some common examples include WordPress for blogging, Audacity for audio recording and GIMP as an alternative to Photoshop. If you take a look at SourceForge you’ll find a searchable directory of more than 260,000 software projects in many different categories.


How would I recommend you get started with open source? Here are a few of my best tips:

1) Survey the landscape. Open source is an innovative approach to software that you will want to understand and respect before jumping in. The Open Source Initiative has a great set of resources. SourceForge will help you get a good overview of the available programs.

2) Start small and focused. While it is possible to replace Windows with Linux as your operating system, Microsoft Office with OpenOffice, or even a commercial law practice management tool with an open source one, you will not have the safety in numbers you have with popular commer cial programs. I would not encourage lawyers (other than the most tech-savvy) to take that all-in approach. Instead, consider specific niche tools and focused needs that open source programs might fill. For example, testing open source for time recording makes much more sense than jumping into an open source practice-management system.

Another good example: Use Open Office to save money you’d otherwise spend on Microsoft Office for someone who has limited word processing needs.

3) Add to the portfolio. Often lawyers are presented with the need to buy expensive software. Some one “must” have Photoshop for simple photo editing or a sophisticated audio program to record a podcast. Make it a practice to identify a few open source alternatives as part of your decision-making process. And lawyers looking to get approval will encounter less resistance if the purchase cost is zero.

4) Be realistic about support. Expect that you will be the front-line support. Remember that the cost of the software license is just one part of the total cost of software ownership. Also, be realistic about who you are as a user of software.

Open source programs are be coming realistic alternatives for lawyers, especially for focused tasks. Now is a great time to add a consideration of open source software to your technology decision-making process. Free can be a good thing.

Dennis Kennedy is a St. Louis-based legal technology writer and information technology lawyer. is his website and the home of his blog.

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