Industry group urges government to think twice on open source

The UK government is considering dramatically increasing the use of open-source licences for publicly funded software, but an IT industry body says the risks may outweigh the benefits
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor
A UK IT industry body backed by Microsoft, IBM, Intel, BAE Systems and other high-tech heavyweights has urged the UK government to show restraint in its use of open-source software, particularly software covered by the General Public License. Intellect, which was formed from the merger of the Computer Services and Software Association and the Federation of the Electronics Industry last year, and represents about 1,000 UK IT companies, said that 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. In particular, Intellect recommended that the government drop the GNU General Public License (GPL), the licence upon which the GNU/Linux operating system is based, from its list of acceptable default licences for government-funded software, and steer clear of the GPL generally. The comments appeared in a response paper published last month, but more widely publicised last week. Intellect was taking part in a consultation by the Office of the E-Envoy and the Department of Trade and Industry on the use of open-source software, which has proposed requiring open-source licences for publicly-funded software development. The OEE and the DTI are considering establishing open-source licence terms as the default for government-funded software, which would apply when no other terms were specified, in order to ensure that publicly-funded software projects can be utilised and built upon as freely as possible. Much government-funded software is already released under open-source licences, but there is no consistent government policy endorsing open source. 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. 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". Intellect said it has no objection to the use of open-source licences as such, but is strongly opposed to the use of the GPL. The group argued that the GPL's conditions would prevent the government from profiting from its software, and could estrange proprietary software companies. "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," Intellect said in the response paper. The group suggested that 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. The 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, Intellect argued. Intellect also charged that it would be a mistake for secretive government bodies to use open-source licences, since these might require the revelation of sensitive information. "There may in some cases be a conflict between the Government's desire to maintain confidentiality and the requirement to disclose the software laid down by a restrictive licence, to the extent that the source code itself discloses attributes about the Government body that are regarded as confidential," the paper said. The group said it was against the use of open-source licences as a default, arguing that the government should judge bids based purely on cost benefits, and was particularly against a provision which would require even projects with proprietary licences to revert to an open-source licence after two years. Open source expanding
Over the past few months, governments in Europe and elsewhere have paid increasingly close attention to the possibilities of open-source software for lowering costs and promoting the free distribution of software innovations. Several European governments have passed or are considering bills that at least require open-source software to be considered alongside proprietary software, while the German city of Munich recently moved to replace nearly 14,000 desktop PCs with Linux computers. Several studies in recent months have found that open source was well-suited for public-sector use, and fitted particularly well with the needs of developing countries. However, open-source software in general and Linux in particular are seen as a threat by many companies. Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer recently identified Linux as the company's chief threat. Mitre, a not-for-profit engineering and IT organisation that works with the US federal government, in a report last autumn found that open-source software was essential for the running of the US Department of Defense, and recommended that in some cases the use of the GPL should be encouraged in order to speed up software development. "The combination of an ambiguous status and largely ungrounded fears that it cannot be used with other types of software are keeping FOSS from reaching optimal levels of use," the Mitre report said. The draft policy on the use of open-source licences with government-funded software is part of a broader policy on open source published last summer by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC). In this policy, the government said that in all future IT developments where interoperability is an issue, it would only use products that support open standards and specifications. Furthermore, it said it would follow a European Commission policy document that suggested exploring the open-source route for all government-funded software research and development. The government is expected to conduct a broad public consultation on the draft policy later this year. ZDNet UK's Matt Loney contributed to this report.
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