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Strategic IT decision-makers

If you are involved with IT strategy or software procurement and are keen to get the best value for money, then you should ensure you consider using open source software. This is certainly the approach recommended by the UK Government. Their policy, covering publicly funded bodies such as the NHS and the education sector, states that they ‘will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis.’ However, building such considerations into university and college policies takes time. Moreover, it may affect more than just the institution's IT strategy. Open source software needs to be considered in terms of intellectual property rights policies, employment contracts, and more.

If consideration of open source software is good policy, then the first step is to gain some familiarity with the world of open source and why it might be important for your university or college.

Scene setting

Open source software can seem a bit baffling at first. Essentially, it is software that people are not only prepared to give away for free, but also to allow you to see the underlying code and edit it as you see fit. This might not seem like a very sensible business strategy. It may even lead you to wonder whether open source software is any good. If it were, why would people give it away?

Once you begin to understand the motivating factors behind open source software development, and see the rationale that persuades even large commercial companies such as IBM and Sun to support open source, you will most likely feel reassured. There are doubtless a few questions you would like answered before giving open source software more serious consideration however. The following resources address questions such as: what is open source software all about? Who are the people who inhabit the world of open source? Why are so many people making such a noise about it? These documents are designed to familiarize you with the fundamental concepts.

Legal issues

There are legal issues that are particularly pertinent to open source software, most notably intellectual property rights (IPR). You should not be put off by such issues, but you should understand them.

Open source software is defined by its licence. To count as genuine open source software, a programme must be released under a licence certified by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). The choice of licence is down to the copyright holder, but when many different people are working on something together, ownership of copyright can be an issue in itself. If your employees are to be involved in open source software development then you will also need to be aware of possible restrictions on combining licences or releasing modified programmes. The potential for software ‘innovations’ to be patented is also a growing concern, as this introduces another aspect of IPR beyond simple copyright.

Engaging with open source software can have implications for institutional IPR policies, employment policies, contracts, and knowledge transfer options. The following documents cover open source licence types and areas in which intellectual property issues may arise.

Policy and strategy

Incorporating new concepts and models within your IT strategy is no easy task. Institutional policy is situated within policy frameworks from government and other funding bodies. Nevertheless, within these constraints it is generally possible to find room for open source, especially if it can be related to some form of best practice.

Institutions and individuals are increasingly thinking about how open source software can be formally assessed as part of the procurement process, and there are publications that can help you understand and compare the strengths and weaknesses of open source software against commercial proprietary packages.

Source: www.oss-watch.ac.uk