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A Brief History of Open Source

Last week, we introduced you to contract analytics and what ContraxSuite can do. This week, we delve deeper into the history and philosophy behind open source tools like ContraxSuite.

A Common Problem

A problem many people have with open source is: it sounds like just another made-up marketing buzzword. It might be something your colleagues in IT talk about. Or maybe it comes up in meetings about software tools. You hear “open source” enough times and it may just fade into background noise. Maybe you understand it. Maybe you don’t. But you have clients to worry about, and problems to solve. Why does it matter what software your organization uses?

There are plenty of places to start a conversation about open source. One of the best places to start, though, is to demystify the tech jargon that sometimes gets wrapped up with open source ideas. You, your associates, paralegals, and other support staff aren’t speaking a different language than the IT people. Only a slightly different dialect.

So let’s bridge the divide between those dialects. Open source is an important concept to understand. Not only is it one of the cornerstones of the Internet age, but the underlying concept – sharing information with potential collaborators – predates modern computing.

Origin of Open Source

Information-sharing is a concept as old as language itself. We humans excel at communication, and our ability to solve problems in large groups via effective communication is the reason we are the dominant lifeform on Earth. Effective communication is also the life blood of any law firm or other legal organization, and is the major ingredient in the successful resolution of a matter.

The philosophy that animates open source is similarly founded on open lines of communication. Open source’s underlying philosophy is essentially that all knowledge should be shared.

This philosophy of knowledge-sharing traces its roots to the academy, and to scholarly notions of publishing and distributing works without any particular zeal for hoarding information or even necessarily collecting a profit. This doesn’t sound like a winning philosophy for any business, but the historical record says otherwise. Let’s look at a well-known example.

Open Source in the Auto Industry

When we think of the boom years of the automobile industry, we think of Henry Ford’s assembly line and WWII-era factories churning out war machines and then being converted into powerhouses of commercial manufacturing come peacetime. We consider the Big Three, and the handful of foreign car manufacturers, to be profit-motivated economic actors that would jealously guard their patented designs.

But the reverse is actually the truth.

Systems employed by any car you drive (from a Toyota, to a Ford, Honda, or Chrysler) use open source in all but name. Think about your windshield wipers. (Okay, maybe not the best example.) The computer in your dashboard wasn’t designed in one place. The systems that know when to deactivate your turn signal, or that operate an automatic transmission, were most likely developed by a team of inventors at one or several different companies, and then disseminated widely therefrom.

This information might otherwise have remained proprietary. Instead, the various automakers developed a system for sharing patents. They started an organization to facilitate this sharing. The Automobile Manufacturers Association (today the Auto Alliance) is just one powerful example of large corporations employing methods that at first seem anti-competitive, but have actually helped to streamline the auto industry and encourage innovation and information sharing. This process of knowledge-sharing continues across the industry, with Tesla making the latest, and biggest, splash.

Open Source Software

Building software isn’t the same as building cars, of course. There are only a handful of automakers in the world; forming a guild is a natural, feasible option. But software? That’s the only way some companies make money. More pertinently, the sheer number of different software companies out there ensures that the market is cutthroat and razor-thin. Giving away code would be suicide!

So what makes open source software viable? To answer that, we return to the origins of knowledge-sharing in academia. The first programming languages came out of this collegiate culture, with the idea that these languages, and the compilers used to make them operate, should be available to anyone and everyone who wanted to tinker around.

This freedom to adapt, adjust, and evolve actually endowed the community with significant advantages. As soon as a programmer encountered a bug, they could easily find it, fix it, and alert others in the community. Efficiency, best practices, and product quality all received a natural boost from this approach. One side effect that nobody minded at first, was that this open source approach made software difficult to commodify.

We all know that didn’t last.

The 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s were dominated by software corporations patenting their products and selling them under strict licenses. Unix is one of the most well-known examples. Microsoft was also at the forefront of this new copyright movement, right at the moment in the history of computing when the Internet started to gain more widespread attention and use. But as in physics, every action has a reaction. The robust culture of code-sharing and open source software would not go quietly into the night brought on by the emergent behemoth corporations. In the background behind Microsoft, Apple, and others, a group of open source advocates worked to create the GNU Project. The GNU Project is better known by the famous open source OS born from it, one that you may in fact be using right now. Linux.

In any other industry, the GNU Project might have failed. But not only did its open source nature have a built-in audience, but the GNU Project also had significant advantages. Windows and Apple’s OS were profit-swelling goliaths, but they were also static and inflexible. They presaged the problems that would come from their own success:

In a world where technological advancement is happening more rapidly every year, how do you produce the best?

Only now are we beginning to see how open source will shift the locus of control in the software world. (And if Microsoft says, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” then something monumental is happening.) But should we be surprised that this methodology has prevailed over the licensing model of last century?

Why Does Any of this Matter to Legal?

Why am I talking about software so much? Attorneys are masters of the written word, of oratory, and of the inner workings of the legal system. Legal professionals are tactile, results-driven, and spirited. Programmers are a completely different breed, obsessed with the abstract and the minute. And they don’t seem to care about money.

It’s true that open source spawned in a collaborative, non-profit type of environment. But the collaboration of software developers is not unlike the collaboration that takes place at any law firm, in-house department, or other legal service provider. The desire to avoid information silos isn’t just good for morale; it makes problem-solving easier, faster, and more dynamic. That is the essential ethos that unites these disparate communities. Problem-solving. The desire to find an effective and flexible solution to a given problem with as few obstacles as possible.

This is the crux of the issue. The ideas behind open source seem alien at first, but are fundamentally the same as the ideas of a legal professional. We have a problem. We need to solve the problem. What resources can we bring to bear? How much will these resources cost? Will these resources be effective?

There are a lot of software tools out there to choose from. Many of the most expensive are the most closely guarded. Meanwhile, the more inexpensive options have their code out there for anyone to inspect and try to improve. Which resource would you expect to be more effective? Something costly, inflexible, and unknowable? Or something inexpensive, adaptable, and straightforward? In the marketplace of ideas, the good ideas always spread. If you don’t have access to good ideas, your organization cannot thrive.

Software tools for legal professionals are important. They can alleviate the burden of the often tedious, but always important work that comprises legal document drafting, e-discovery, risk analysis, and so many other elements. The usage of these tools frees up attorneys, paralegals, and their support staff to engage in the more cerebral, kinetic aspects of law practice that machines cannot do and, arguably, will never be able to do. And to accomplish this efficient, next-level symbiosis, the best software tools will be open source.

Conclusion

We always fear what we are not sure we understand. The myths surrounding “open source” are just that: myths. “Open source” is nothing more than a useful phrase to describe a method of software development that has repeatedly proven its effectiveness. If you need to find a solution to a particular technological problem, odds are, a piece of software already exists that can help. This means your organization won’t have to waste time developing its own version, or waste an obscene amount of money on purchasing a product license. The legal marketplace is changing, with clients slowly asserting control of the direction of those changes. Technology has disrupted legal, but legal can harness and channel that disruption into new practices. Clients want their legal team using the best resources out there. And the best software resources are open source.

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