This is my response to a ZDNet UK article entitled Re: Industry group urges government to think twice on open source.
I would like to comment on some points raised in the above entitled article, from http://news.zdnet.co.uk/story/0,,t269-s2136285,00.html.
* "Intellect ... represents about 1,000 UK IT companies"
It rapidly becomes clear that the statements made by Intellect are clearly propaganda designed to spread FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Hence their recommendations should be read in the context of blatant self-interest.
* "the requirement of open-source licences for software funded by the government could have a negative impact on competition for contracts, the quality of the resulting software and even the confidentiality of government departments."
Competition: if anything, a tender that requires a FS/OSS license would actually _increase_ competition, simply because all vendors would be on a level playing field. Vendors cannot rely on lock-in to keep customers, and must compete on results and performance. If one vendor does not adequately perform, another can step in.
Quality: the impact of open development processes on quality is clear and well documented - it generally _increases_ the quality of the code. By opening the source to scrutiny and improvement by other developers, this will not only encourage co-operation, but be more transparent and hold vendors more accountable for the code they are producing. More incentive to produce higher quality code!
Confidentiality: there are already existing processes for classifying information and preserving confidentiality. For one, confidential information is normally vested in documents and information, not source code, so this point is largely irrelevant. But if there really are national interests at stake in the code, exemptions can be made on a case-by-case basis.
* "...Intellect recommended that the government drop the GNU General Public License (GPL), ... from its list of acceptable default licences for government-funded software..."
Given the absence of any supporting arguments, one can only assume that this is due to the fact that GPLed code, once published, cannot be made proprietary. Presumably these companies feel that the government has some sort of resonsability to provide proprietary vendors with free ready-to-use code that they can incorporate into their own products and re-sell. Sell back to the very public that funded its development in the first place, without releasing any improvements, so the public is charged twice. This is clearly not in the interests of the public, and clearly not the role the government should be playing.
* "...and steer clear of the GPL generally"
What possible reason could they have for recommending this? Merely _running_ GPL software has absolutely no implications on IP and creates no obligations whatsoever; in fact, the freedom to run the software for any purpose is guaranteed.
* "Broadly, open-source licences prevent one organisation from taking control of a piece of software by requiring that developers be allowed to examine, modify and redistribute its source code, as long as the modifications are returned to the development community."
Actually, this more accurately describes the GPL. There are several open source licenses (such as BSD, X11, Apache) that do not require modifications to be republished. These licenses are more palatable to software vendors as it allows them to reap the benefits of all this open free code without having to bother with publishing their improvements back to the community.
* "Under the GPL, any software that incorporates GPL-licensed code becomes itself licensed under the GPL, a requirement that has led proprietary software companies such as Microsoft to describe it as "viral"."
This is not true as stated - it is not the case that code touched "becomes licenced" since only the copyright holder can change the terms of the licence. This must be an explicit action. It is more correct to say that any software that incorporates GPL code must be licensed under the GPL, or else the license to use that GPLed code is revoked. You must therefore remove the GPLed code, or be in violation of the original copyright. The GPL is simply _incompatible_ with proprietary licenses since they do not allow protect users' freedoms. The GPL cannot just "take over" the license of other code, contrary to what Microsoft would have you believe.
* "When the Government decides to develop software using a restrictive licensing base, such as the GNU GPL, (it) should be aware that this would prevent it from deriving commercial gain from any subsequent derivative programs and prevent or severely limit the opportunities to work with commercial companies on such projects,"
The government exists to serve the public. The government is not in the business of selling software, so deriving commercial gain from software should not be a consideration in its decision making process. The best interests of the public are paramount, and taxpayer funds must be responsibly allocated for the greatest benefit. Opening up the source and preserving its freedom would certainly seem to fulfil this mandate.
Having said that, there is nothing in the GPL (or any other FS/OSS license) that prevents you from selling the software. In fact, it is generally encouraged in order to provide support and services to fund ongoing development.
As for limiting opportunities for commercial companies: these vendors can decide whether or not they wish to work on such government funded projects. There is no disadvantage to the vendors, since they are going to get paid to develop the software regardless of whether or not it is subsequently published.
* "competition for government software development contracts could be sub-par, since many software companies might instead choose to bid for contracts without open-source licence requirements"
There is an excellent case here for leting market forces decide. Their claims are again unsubstantiated; it is equally likely that more opportunities are created and bidding competition will be just as strong.
* "software resulting from government contracts might include only basic features, since developers would be reluctant to allow their cutting-edge technology to be exposed to the public via an open-source licence"
The logic of this argument is deeply flawed. It is based on the assumption that developers must (for some reason) always expose their own existing "cutting-edge" technology in order to deliver all of the required features. We are left to presume that only "basic features" could possibly be provided without the magic of proprietary software.
Yet they fail to recognise that there exists hundreds of high quality libraries and tools in the FS/OSS arena, eminently capable of delivering high quality software - including all advanced features! Furthermore, licenses (such as BSD, LGPL) can be selected such that the opened code can be combined with proprietary libraries, without requiring them to be published.
* "it would be a mistake for secretive government bodies to use open-source licences, since these might require the revelation of sensitive information"
Let common sense prevail; if there really is something sensitive in the code, this can be evaluated and exempted as appropriate. It is no reason to avoid the default openness.
* "particularly against a provision which would require even projects with proprietary licences to revert to an open-source licence after two years."
This is an nice idea, but still not as good as being open from the beginning. Given the incredibly rapid pace of change in the software industry, 2 years is a very long time. If a product is still viable, a vendor would have at least 2 versions released in the marketplace before the much older would be released, thus their advantage would still be preserved.
To conclude: the often outrageous statements by Intellect are clearly driven by self-interest, and seek to spread FUD over the issue. FS/OSS is challenging the hegemony of proprietary software, as it shifts the model from selling software to selling services, support and value-add. FS/OSS is clearly a good fit for the government, and vendors should realise that they can still carry on a profitable business in an open market.
[Feel free to publish but please do not publish my email address]
Gavin Baker -- antonym.org