‘Free’ Software Isn’t Free

Published January 1, 2005

States facing budget shortfalls are poring over government management and purchasing practices in search of any sort of savings. At the same time, a worldwide movement for “free and open software” falsely promises something for nothing plus the ability to modify code and share changes among users.

State legislators attracted to the free software flame are likely to get burned if preference legislation opens a dangerous back door to purchasing safeguards and ends up costing more than commercial software alternatives.

It’s not unusual for state legislatures to implement public policy choices with laws affecting state purchases of information technology (IT) products and services. For example, many states have bidding rules that confer advantages to in-state businesses, and some have passed increased security standards in the wake of cyberterrorism threats.

However, even well-intentioned legislation can produce unpredictable and undesirable results when it affects complex software decisions made at the state agency and departmental level. Moreover, taking the risk of unintended consequences isn’t justifiable when state IT managers are already, on their own, making the very choices legislatures seek to enforce.

Many Definitions of “Open Source”

Open source is widely used as an umbrella term for more than 85 different software license agreements that variously allow access to the source code, or recipe, for the program. However, the term “open source” is neither precise nor instructive, since these licenses vary greatly in their terms, and some are actually quite restrictive when it comes to modifying and redistributing software.

Cost-sensitive state managers are attracted to “free software” on the promise of saving money and avoiding the procurement processes that govern proposals and purchasing decisions. While initially appealing, free software has costs and risks that should be understood when considering legislation that favors its use.

With all software, the price of acquisition is just the first cost incurred over the life cycle of an application. IT managers know to expect additional upfront costs for training, data conversion, and integration, plus several years of ongoing costs for maintenance, upgrades, and support. This concept is well understood as “total cost of ownership (TCO).” Within the context of TCO, an initial cost advantage for free software can be offset by higher life cycle costs.

Modify at Your Own Risk

One possible appeal of open source licensing is that programmers can freely modify and customize the program to suit their own purposes. But when a programmer employed in a state agency changes just a few lines of code, he voids any quality and support guarantees from the vendors who initially provided the software. By modifying the software, the state shoulders the burden of software support. While the state might be able to purchase support contracts for its modified software, those added costs are further proof the free software isn’t free.

The American IT industry predominantly uses commercial licenses for its software and would unquestionably be harmed by state preferences for non-commercial licenses. In addition, state IT workers who have developed skills in commercial software from Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM could face obsolescence and replacement unless states dedicate new dollars for worker retraining.

Legislative preferences also can hamper state IT directors, who are charged with implementing multi-year comprehensive IT strategies across government agencies. They also are struggling to deploy e-government solutions that are accessible and secure for citizens and business users. To execute these long-term IT plans, states have to keep a tight rein on IT purchasing decisions made by agencies. But state mandates for open source licensed software could encourage decentralized purchasing decisions, without regard for a state’s broader IT strategy.

Finally, in an era of viruses, worms, and spyware, IT security has never been more important. State IT directors must be confident that any software deployed in state government will be adequately protected from threats to security and information privacy. Software that’s downloaded and deployed without state approval could compromise the security of sensitive citizen information such as Social Security numbers or health records.

State legislators should exercise their oversight role to get the best value for their state’s software dollars, but they must also maintain an open and competitive environment so that all software and services are scrutinized according to rules developed through decades of experience. Moreover, state IT managers are in the best position to evaluate which technologies and licensing methods fit with specific agency needs and plans. And businesses serving the states are already offering and supporting software with a variety of licensing terms, including open source.

Legislative preferences for open source licensing will only limit choice and restrict competition in what is already an intensely competitive market.

Steve DelBianco represents the Association for Competitive Technology and the NetChoice Coalition. He is also private-sector chair of the Competition Subcommittee of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force. This article is adapted from “No Such Thing as Free Software,” published in ALEC Policy Forum: Jeffersonian Principles in Action, Spring 2004.