The rise and success of the open source movement has provided a tremendous number of public resources. Wikipedia is an example of how open source has provided significant benefits to the general user audience. Today, open source is no longer limited to computer programs, but covers many other forms of media such as text, audio, video, etc. (See my previous article on Creative Commons.)
How does one take advantage of using such free resources?
- Locate the sources of open source content: There are many central repositories for obtaining such content, like the Free Software Directory, Creative Commons Search, Gutenberg Books, Librivox Audio, etc. Wikipedia has many sister projects like Wikiquote, Wiktionary, etc.
- Use search to locate content: Click Google Advanced Search – note the “Usage Rights” field where you can choose the right content. Yahoo has “Creative Commons Search” under its advanced search. Developers can use Krugle or Google Code Search. The idea behind using open source is to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Learn to search better to accomplish this objective.
- Understand licensing: Different open source licenses provide different rights and enforce certain restrictions. Based on your needs, you may need to choose the right license. For example, the GNU General Public License (GPL) forces you to publish your work as open source again, if you use GPL content. Most licenses operate under the copyright law of the country where the author is based.
- Include necessary attribution: Most licenses request that the user explain clearly who the original authors are and what license the work uses. Many people stumble at this step, because they fail to add the necessary copyright notices when they re-distribute a work.
- Use proprietary work as appropriate: “Free” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”. Sometimes proprietary software or content has benefits that existing open source cannot provide – including usability, customer support, total cost of ownership, etc. Or vice versa. You have to spend time evaluating all the pros and cons with respect to your situation and make a careful decision.
The last point is particularly important in business decisions. Many technical people are either adamantly for or against open source, mostly out of ignorance.
For example, someone hates Microsoft and always selects the competing open source product, without worrying about how the rest of the IT team may have to spend significant time learning a new technology/environment or how there may be integration problems. On the other hand, some manager always selects a proprietary solution without researching if an open source solution with good support is available. Keeping an open mind is very crucial in avoiding costly decisions.