Mandatory open source 'too risky' for Australia

Making the use of open-source software compulsory within government could overstretch the industry and lead to disaster, Australian politicians fear.

Australia's coalition government has ruled out mandating the use of open-source software in the federal government, saying such a move would stretch the industry's resources to the point that the risk of a high-profile project failure would be "unacceptably high".

Christopher Pearce, the Liberal member of parliament for Aston, made the remarks to the AUUG (Australian UNIX and Open Systems User Group) conference in Melbourne last week on behalf of the federal minister for information technology, communications and the arts, Helen Coonan.

In a speech transcript released to ZDNet Australia, Pearce said the Howard government's policy on open-source use in government was "very simple".

"Agencies are allowed to use whatever software is available, providing it meets agencies' needs and is cost effective as a business solution, considering the total cost of ownership over the life of its use, not just the up-front cost".

Pearce said there was no discrimination between open-source and proprietary software in the government on ideological or philosophical grounds, with its stance on the issue best described as "informed neutrality".

"It would be a risky move if government were to mandate open-source software," he said.

"Government is big enough for its demand to outstrip supply, if introduced quickly."

"Industry resources would be stretched if there were a significant number of simultaneous large implementations."

"This would unacceptably increase the risk of a large high-profile failure, which would be both a setback for the government and for industry," he said.

Pearce also attacked the Australian Labor Party's (ALP) spokesperson on IT, Senator Kate Lundy, over her raising of intellectual property concerns involving the free trade agreement with the United States.

He said "the (free trade agreement) will have no effect on the use of open-source software".

"Open source licenses are a form of copyright license and the ability to have such licenses is unaffected by the [free trade agreement]".

Pearce also sought to allay developers' concerns over provisions in the agreement related to technology protection measures.

"I can again reassure you that the IP chapter allows some flexibility in the implementation of the provisions relating to technological protection measures," he said.

"The agreement also provides for a two-year transitional period to implement these provisions, which will present the opportunity for consultation in this area to address the concerns of open-source software developers", he added. "The IP chapter also does not alter competition law in Australia and competition law can be used to address concerns about potentially anti-competitive conduct".

"I understand the (free trade agreement) will not have an effect on Australia's current approach and treatment of applications to patent computer software," said Pearce, adding that software was patentable if it met the criteria of being "new", "inventive", a "manner of manufacture" and useful".

"The claims that we have seen from the ALP and the Democrats that Australian software producers would be harmed by the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement are nothing more than unfounded scare tactics."

He also said the government was preparing a range of tools to help government agencies evaluate open-source solutions against proprietary solutions, including case studies on the implementation of open-source solutions in government, an open-source guide and a 'Community of Practice'.

Iain Ferguson of ZDNet Australia reports from Sydney.

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