Will free software remain free?

by Scott Hamilton

The question was asked this week on a lot of message boards about one of the most popular free software packages. The open source LibreOffice Suite announced their latest version and promoted it as LibreOffice Personal Edition. This raised a lot of concern across the open source community.

LibreOffice is the defacto standard in Microsoft Office replacement on Linux. Microsoft currently does not offer their office suite on the free open source Linux operating systems, aside from the ability to use Office365 online, which limits some functionality. When The Document Foundation made the announcement, it sent panic through the Linux community, much like April 20, 2009.

On April 20, 2009, Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, the maintainers of Java and OpenOffice, which were both critical components of the open source software community. Sun Microsystems was an open source friendly company and released a majority of their software with fully open license agreements. Oracle on the opposite end of the spectrum was known for swallowing open source projects and attaching proprietary licensing models which cost corporations and governments millions. Lucky for the community, Sun had used the GNU General Public License when it created OpenOffice, allowing the developers to legally “branch” the project, creating the now more popular LibreOffice Suite. OpenOffice is still available but only for personal use and cannot be used in commercial environment without a fee paid to Oracle. However, Libre Office has remained free for the masses.

Oracle has also stopped free license for commercial use on their Java Virtual Machine (required for running any Java based application), making the Java language an Oracle proprietary project for the most part. There were some loopholes that have allowed the open source community to develop a Java engine, but they are not allowed to implement a majority of the new features for fear of costly copyright violation suits from Oracle. The fear is that the recent name change to LibreOffice means the end of free use to enterprise.

”The Document Foundation,”which holds the copyright of the LibreOffice code base, announced that they renamed the product simply to set it apart from their optional enterprise support product. They have no intention of making LibreOffice a paid product to any user, corporate or otherwise, but want to have an easier way to distinguish between Enterprise customers that are optionally willing to pay for direct support from customers that desire to continue to use the product for free. They are not planning to develop separate products like RedHat does with Centos being free and open source and RedHat Enterprise Linux being a paid subscription service, both having different code bases. LibreOffice plans to only tie a license file to the Enterprise Product, which will have an identical code base to the free product. This license file will enable online chat capabilities with 24/7 Libre Office Support staff.

It is interesting to follow the trends in free and open source software and see the number of times companies like The Document Foundation are able to charge fees for official support resulting in enough funding to keep the products free for the masses. It always makes me happy to see a business being successful with a free product that does not involve advertising to make revenue. LibreOffice is truly a free office suite available for Windows, MacOS and Linux with no license fees, and no pop ads or limited capabilities. The product is completely funded by the optional purchase of paid product support and donations.

If you are looking for a way to get away from paying an annual license fee for Microsoft Office, or just want to use a completely free operating system, give LibreOffice a try. Stay safe and learn something new.

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