Why Open Source Matters: Control

Jo Cook writes about ESRI’s crackdown on licensing:

In what can only be described as a noble act of self-sacrifice, ESRI have told us that as an educational charity we are no longer allowed to have an educational discount for using their software and, not only that, our license codes will cease to work at the end of this month.

This is why Open Source software is so important. So you think you have a stable relationship with your vendor? Maybe you think that you’ve come to a great licensing agreement that you’re happy with? Remember that so long as you’re working in an environment where someone else controls the tools you use, you’re not able to make your own rules.

Why does Open Source software matter? If you’re not using it, you’re handing over control of your use of your tools — possibly important ones — to people who aren’t under your control. In the end, that lack of control may end up hurting you far more than you’d expect.

8 Responses to “Why Open Source Matters: Control”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    Well, most of the time.

    In principle, though, the licensor even of open-source software is still the sovereign owner of the code, and could revoke the license. (The GPLv3 explicitly says otherwise, but nobody knows how effective that is.) That wouldn’t prevent you from using the copies or derivatives you have, or distributing ones already in the pipeline (equitable estoppel), but after you had proper notice you wouldn’t be able to make any more.

    Needless to say, anyone who actually did this arbitrarily (as opposed to the limited circumstances in which your license is, or may be, revoked that are spelled out in open-source licenses, usually because you have broken the rules) would be held up to scorn, obloquy, and contempt by the whole world.

  2. Sean Gillies Says:

    It’s the obloquy that would keep me up at night. What a great word.

    The incident is due to a misunderstanding, not mal intent, but I think that only highlights how vulnerable you are when you give up control.

  3. Colby Mulkey Says:

    Is there a particular Open Source project that you would recommend, as an alternative to ESRI products? (Particularly to someone with limited GIS experience that just inherited an SDE database?)

    I realize that I’ve posed a very general question that probably has a different answer for every potential use… but it doesn’t hurt to ask!

  4. crschmidt Says:


    Well, it depends what you’re trying to do. I don’t use any ESRI software, nor do I know how anyone uses ESRI software. I think that qgis + GRASS provide a similar type of functionality to some ESRI products, for example, with qgis acting on the data display side and GRASS on the data analysis side.

    Are you working with Analysis? Display? Web mapping? Data munging? Reports? etc. These all make a difference as to what software will work best.

    If you just want to save some cash, and are less concerned about Open Source, there may be better options, especially for “desktop GIS”, than open source software. It doesn’t solve the problem of control, but it does perhaps help limit the liability by spreading out your specific vendor dependence.

  5. Colby Mulkey Says:

    I knew I wasn’t being specific enough! But, at this point, I’m afraid I can’t be much more specific. (Not because I like withholding information, but because I haven’t gotten my feet wet yet.)

    Our IT department (that’s me) absorbed our GIS department (that’s “them”), and our former GIS Coordinator decided to pursue other career opportunities. Someone’s got to pick up the slack, and the few of us that are qualified are uninitiated AND lack the time to initiate ourselves. This could be interesting…

  6. Regina Says:


    As far as open source alternatives – PostGIS is the equivalent to SDE in the open source stack and ESRI ArcGIS 9.3 (or is it 9.4) is supposed to have direct support for it.

    You may want to also look at gvSIG for desktop in addition to the ones Chris mentioned. I think they have a lot of plug-ins that work with ESRI stack.

  7. Colby Mulkey Says:

    Thank you, to Chris and Regina, for providing me with a starting point!

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