The Truth About ‘Free’ Software for Nonprofits
Information technology can be a very expensive endeavour. Nonprofit organizations often seek donations or grants in order to obtain the technology products and services that are increasingly becoming mandatory components of their operation. As with most things, though, the devil is in the details.
Most people don’t realize that modern commercial software is rarely “sold” in the conventional sense, but rather “licensed”. Microsoft explains that this “is different than purchasing a car or house in that you have the right to run the software but there are ongoing requirements that determine how the software can be used.” The requirements of a software license vary from product to product, but most of them specifically forbid using the program for anything other than its intended purpose, sharing the program with other people and modifying the program in any way.
Software vendors have very legitimate reasons for placing these restrictions on their products: liability concerns, technical support and, of course, profit. Software vendors do not want to be held responsible for any damage that might result from misuse of their products, so they specifically state what the intended use is and tell you that you’re on your own if you use it for anything else. Technical support is extremely difficult to begin with, and made immeasurably more complicated if folks are allowed to tinker around with the inner workings of a program. And of course sharing copies of commercial software denies the vendor profit from sales.
This practice of placing restrictions on software has been going on for a very long time. In 1984 Richard Stallman, working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Labs, got fed up with such restrictions and set out to create a free computer operating system. He asked for volunteers to help him. Thus, the Free Software Foundation was born.