Government, for and against, at OScon

by Andy Oram

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We are constantly reminded how little intellectual or cultural capital
we'd have without a public domain or commons. We wouldn't have the
technology that is currently most exciting to computer users, for
instance: Mac OS X. Its history (partly retold by Jason Evans today at

O'Reilly Open Source Convention

in his talk on

Porting Open Source Applications to Mac OS X
is nothing but a string of projects whose intellectual property was
taken over wholesale by other projects; the whole operating system is
as mongrelized as Yiddish or Spanglish. The Mach team at
Carnegie-Mellon adopted BSD as their interface. NextSTEP adopted Mach
and BSD. When NextSTEP was taken over by Apple, it went back once
again to newer versions of Mach and BSD to create Darwin. The system's
toolchain, like the one on Linux, consists almost entirely of GNU
utilities such as gcc. I could go on and on.

Nowadays, the use of Open Source software is firmly on government
agendas in several continents. Incentives are financial, functional,
and strategic. Representatives of Germany and Peru
joined several U.S. experts in and outside of government
in the panel

Open Source in Government Panel

Here we learned that Open Source is widely used throughout the federal
government, including by the military in mission-critical projects
(where they really mean "mission-critical"). But the atmosphere
created by high-level officials, as well as by Microsoft's pressure,
can be characterized as "Don't ask, don't tell." Therefore, nobody can
tell how widespread it is.

Dr. Edgar David Villanueva Núñez, a congressman in Peru
who has introduced a bill mandating the use of Open Source software by
government, raised the financial issue. He pointed out that people in
Peru go to jail for illegally installing proprietary software--while
the prosecutors and judges who jail them are also illegally using
proprietary software.

Functional considerations are the same ones driving the adoption of
Open Source in industry. One of the great advantages here of Open
Source software is its interoperability. "The ability to collaborate
is critical," said Mary Ann Fisher of IBM, especially between
government and universities.

Strategic issues include knowing how the software works and giving the
public confidence in government functions.

As Open Source enters the mainstream, in the session

Legal Issues for Open Source Projects

Lawrence Rosen showed how young and unformed the legal regime for Open
Source is. The GPL is quite sophisticated, but Rosen took exception
with clauses even in that. Many other licenses seem embarrassingly
insufficient from a lawyer's point of view. Ironically, UCITA (which
would let commercial software developers wantonly abandon their
responsibilities to consumers) would place burdens on free software
that its developers could not afford by requiring implied warranties
of merchantability and fitness. (According to Rosen, Maryland put an
exemption for free software into its version of UCITA.)

When Richard Stallman, a conference keynoter whose speech I summarized
yesterday's weblog,
chose as his life's mission to make software free, many of us saw it
as rather quixotic and obsessive even if they sympathized with the
cause. And even if we recognized that the future would be based on
the miniaturized and the digital, we did not grasp how totally software
would become the metaphor and then the model for all things
intellectual and cultural. The more change is framed in terms of
intellectual property, the more RMS's place in history is assured.

Copyrights are by no means the only battleground, or even the most
important one. Thus, the greatest health battle of the past two
hundred years, AIDS, and the success of drug companies in producing
treatments, becomes framed in social terms as a patent issue. So do
controversies over new crops. In the two keynotes this morning, by
biologists Ewan Birney and Jim Kent, questions of intellectual
property were posed over and over. For instance, the issue came up
several times of the difficulties in opening up research results, as
well as software developed during these projects, because of the
Bayh-Dole Act of 1980.

So there's a lot of work left to do to put Open Source on a firm
footing: legal work to produce licenses good for the long term,
educational work work to promote its use in and outside government,
and political work to combat the laws and policies that could crush