'Default' open-source licensing plans under fire

Software developed by public bodies should be released under open-source licences, says the government, in a document that has spooked proprietary software vendors

Proprietary software companies reacted sharply on Wednesday to plans by the UK government to enforce stricter rules on the use of their software, particularly where there is a potential for lock-in or where there is an open source alternative.

In a draft consultation document published on Tuesday, the office of the e-envoy sent its clearest signal yet to government departments that they should pay more attention to open source. The guidelines say that departments should consider open-source software alongside proprietary software in IT procurements and award contracts on a value-for-money basis -- a measure bound to rankle with proprietary software vendors, who increasingly find it difficult to compete against open-source software in terms of value-for-money.

Furthermore, government departments are banned from using products that do not support open standards and specifications, they will seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary products and services, and will consider obtaining full rights to any bespoke code that they commission.

But the measure that most acutely touched a nerve with proprietary software vendors appears to be the rule that says that publicly funded software will be released under open-source licences.

"Essentially, if this goes ahead, it will force public-sector bodies into using software that is not appropriate for them," said the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC), in a statement. The ISC is an initiative of industry association CompTIA, which represents several hundred proprietary software companies, including Microsoft -- one of the most outspoken critics of open-source licences.

"R&D project owners should be free to select the licensing model that best meets their particular needs and public authorities should maintain the broadest array of licensing options when pursuing R&D projects," said ISC. "For this reason, the ISC strongly encourages the e-envoy to continue to promote a technology-neutral policy with respect to government funded R&D, and it recommends that any discriminatory reference to a particular software licence be deleted from the policy currently under discussion."

The e-envoy's consultation closes on 11 June, 2004.