Open Source Digital Asset Management Software: Why Freedom Doesn’t Mean Free

This post by Ralph Windsor originally appeared on the Daydream website in July 2009.


A number of open source DAM solutions are now being offered across all platforms now by a variety of vendors and in general this is a positive development.

Several commentators, however, have raised concerns about the nature of the solutions provided and how much support and assistance users can realistically expect to obtain from taking the open source route.  In particular, the measurement of ROI when taking into consideration the costs of support and implementation services is raised as a negative point about open source DAM.  These discussions highlight some popular misconceptions about the nature of open source software, mainly because they tend to be free of licence charges.

In simple terms, open source guarantees nothing other than that access to the source code will not be restricted – it does not necessarily mean that there is no cost involved or that there is an obligation on the part of the author to distribute copies of the code to anyone who asks for it.

The GPL is one of the more common open source licences in use and allows software authors and/or distributors to charge a fee for supplying open source software.  Also, they can refuse to distribute copies of the code publicly.  The fact that many open source software authors agree to provide the source code for free via downloadable links on public websites is more of a marketing strategy or personal choice than a stipulated requirement of the licence.

The metaphors used to explain open source do not help with dispelling these myths.   One example often used is the self service supermarket checkout concept.  There are others, but see these separate articles by Jeff Atwood and Henrik de Gyor for examples (the latter specifically relates to DAM).  Although both are interesting observations and make some valid points, they are arguably inaccurate when considering open source software.  The premise of both articles is that open source software resembles a ‘self-service’ supermarket checkout where users can avoid the time cost of checking out via a human operated till with a lengthy queue of shoppers, however, they are forced to deal with rudimentary service related issues that would be handled for them in the human operated checkout.

I would argue that this metaphor is not really valid because supermarket customers are most certainly charged for the products they wish to procure (that is evident by the receipt provided whichever checkout is used).  Customers are invited to discount the time required to use a managed checkout service in return for taking on this work themselves.  In software terms, this is like being charged licence fees for your product but then having to pay for your own learning and acquisition of skills to complete real world tasks with it. To me, this describes the closed source packaged, non-bespoke software experience most people are used to already – they are expected to handle the service element of the software implementation themselves and work out how to use it on their own.

So how should prospective buyers compare open source digital asset management systems against closed source ones?  To quote from Richard Stallman, an open source pioneer, “you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer.”

In larger companies, a preference for open source is usually due to risk management factors rather than any kind of evangelical or altruistic preferences.  In this sense, the open source licence is an alternative to a software escrow agreement and side-steps the legal complexity and expense incurred by both vendor and customer when drafting these agreements.

The second key benefit of open source in an enterprise context is the bizarre fashion in which some closed source software vendors use an arbitrary ‘per user’ licence model for web based solutions when the marginal cost has fallen to virtually nothing (or at least does not move in neat straight line).  Again, the open source model is effective at removing these pricing inefficiencies – for enterprise software at least.

An open source licence allows both buyer and vendor to focus more clearly on services and the actual work of delivery.  For enterprise software, it is a more honest and professional way to create and consume value.  These are the crucial factors that buyers need to consider when buying a enterprise DAM solution for a large organisation.  The ‘free’ cost of one product licence versus another is a dangerous distraction from considering the overall ROI.

Having an open source solution without a licence cost does not itself leave end users without support or the additional services they need to implement a large scale DAM effectively, it just depends on whether or not the provider (or their partners) offer these service options or not.  Most of them usually do, because it is an opportunity to generate revenue – which they still require like any other commercial operation.  I would argue that open source places greater emphasis on the services element of software implementation such as user support, training and hosting.  These have been and will continue to be the more significant factors for anyone implementing Enterprise DAM.

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