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Open Source Software and Linux - avoiding a lawsuit
(An aggressive essay in a fictional setting in Anytown, USA)

               Listen to this essay as an mp3 podcast HERE

In the not too distant future, when proactive taxpayer groups decide to hold their School Districts and School Board accountable for the senseless spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars in computer technology purchases, especially software, there may be court sessions where the Prosecutor could be grilling the district's Legal Counsel with questions similar to these:


P: Was the district aware of the existence of Open Source applications that involve no cost and no licensing fees to install in Mac and PC laptops?

LC: Yes, I am aware of at least one department that after purchasing laptops found that they had no money left for software, so they used StarOffice, an Open Source application that is equivalent to Microsoft's Office...

P: Are you saying that the district knows that there are software products that require no licensing, can be given to teachers and students to use, and still insist on paying hundreds of dollars per computer to provide basic functionality to desktops and laptops?

LC: I am told that "the real world" uses Microsoft, so the district buys the product the child is likely to see in the workplace when they graduate.

P: Please indulge me - what kind of car did you, madam, learn to drive on?

LC: It was a 64 Ford truck with standard transmission...

P: Did you learn to drive 64 Fords only, or were the skills learned transferable to any car, anywhere, at anytime?

LC: You saw me parallel park this morning, what do you think?

P: I frankly was impressed... very precise maneuvering. The point is, regardless of how you learn a skill, if you learn it well, you will be able to use it appropriately in the future, don't you agree?

LC: It seems reasonable to accept that statement.

P: So, if the skill of learning word processing, spreadsheet use and presentation software use is learned correctly, say using software that loads and saves in the "real world" formats, as Open Source software allows, then there is no need to spend all that money for proprietary products, is there?

LC: Looking at the results, you may have an argument. But I understand districts want uniformity and a vendor they can call when anything with the software goes wrong - Does Open Source provide that?

P: Because applications such as StarOffice or OpenOffice are Open Source, and programmers can look at the code that runs these applications, the international community is very quick in finding solutions to potential flaws and problems. They have an intellectual interest in making sure that the Open Source application stays problem free, so instead of an 800 number offering classical music you have the Internet with Special Interest Groups that are monitored 24 hours a day, again for free. That being said, have you directed the district to adopt a policy of Open Records that applies to the software they use?

LC: I am not sure I follow...

P: Open Records can be interpreted not only as the transparency of the dealings of the district, but also as the use of proprietary formats that may change over time at the software maker's whim. Open Source software, on the other hand, uses standards and coding available to any programmer, so records become independent of the application that created them. In a sense, you exclude proprietary vendors from the record gathering or storage process. The question stands.

LC: Nobody has ever challenged the electronic access format of any of the district's records, but I suppose eventually someone will. How would recommending Open Source adoption change anything? The district would still have a file called FILENAME.DOC created via MS Word or Open Office.

P: The difference is that the district would not be spending tax money from Joe Taxpayer's payments - he's worked hard enough to earn them, and there should be an Open SourceSoftware policy in place at the district level to make sure money is not being thrown away.

LC: You could make the same case for any government agency... We all use proprietary software.

P: There will be other lawsuits and motions to address that irregularity. I want to make sure Legal Council admits for the purpose of this trial that there has been no distinct effort on the part of the district to reduce the so called Digital Divide, by incorporating Open Source software installation and distribution as a priority in all computer desktops and laptops, and that in fact no serious studies have been made to use Linux as a desktop Operating System, replacing Window's propensity for infections by viruses and hackers.

LC: Linux as an operating system? What does that have to do with Open Source?

P: All Linux code is Open Source, all the applications we've been discussing are Open Source applications that run on Linux also. Under certain circumstances, you can have Mac and PC computers also running Linux, making it the one operating system that runs on all platforms. This is the one standard that the district could have, if they decided to protect the investment made in hardware.

LC: Protecting the investment? Are you talking about old equipment also?

P: Proper research and a willingness to change from the traditional solutions would point out that Linux is ideal for old equipment, and that for machines whose hard drive no longer functions, the district could turn them into diskless clients following the K12LTSP.org model, labs with one powerful server and PC diskless workstations of every make and model running at network speeds.

LC: You mentioned MS Office products - what other Open Source products would there be as an incentive for the district to start considering the "official" adoption of Open Source as a district standard?

P: Linux comes with hundreds of free applications, and can be installed on any PC as a dual boot system, to at least offer students that choice. For Macs and PCs, there are major applications such as OpenOffice, a Microsoft Office replacement, GIMP, a Photoshop equivalent, SeaMonkey a powerful browser and HTML composer, LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP), TuxMath and TuxPaint, and many more. Almost every major application in the market has its Open Source equivalent.

LC: I would like to ask for a recess to meet with my client and propose a settlement. What major arguments would the Prosecutor suggest I put forth?

P: Open Source software has several distinct advantages over proprietary software. The widespread peer review process involved in open source development creates software which is more error-free and resource-efficient than proprietary software. In addition, Open Source is a must for security-critical applications- true security is never achieved by attempting to conceal any security defects that a program may have, but rather by allowing anyone interested to seek out these flaws and eliminate them. Open Source allows for that. In terms of who will survive, if resilience is an issue, the open-source culture will triumph not because cooperation is morally right or software "hoarding" is morally wrong, ...but simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with open-source communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem.


And so, Legal Counsel goes off to try and convince her fictional district, that being accountable to the taxpayer's rights, and saving money by embracing Open Source alternatives are issues that must be addressed sooner, rather than later.


(Solution to scenario:  (PDF) Resolution for University of Buffalo (SUNY), in Support of Open Software and Standards)