NASA requests help finding gov't use of standard OSS licenses.
brian at behlendorf.com
Mon May 2 07:51:15 UTC 2011
On Sun, 1 May 2011, Robin 'Roblimo' Miller wrote:
> And then there's VistA - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VistA - which is
> public domain and was released as the result of a FOIA request. I love VistA
> and wrote about it earlier today at htttp://roblimo.com -
This is also on the spreadsheet Scott is maintaining that Karl mentioned.
However, it's listed incorrectly - the U.S. government did not release it
as GPL or under any other open source license, but as public domain, as a
response to a FOIA request (and subsequent updates under subsequent FOIAs,
a situation they are trying to fix). This is because VistA was written by
VA employees and/or contractors whose IP output was assigned to the VA.
This is significant, as some will argue (as I might) that taxpayer-funded
bespoke software should be released as CC0/public domain, which should
also be seen as covering any patent claims by the developers. When the
developers are government employees, this is already the case (or should
When the software is written by a contractor, then the terms of that
contract & any supplements apply. That's generally whatever the
contractor can negotiate, and what the procurement office will ask for.
Procurement offices don't seem to be particularly careful about IP issues
beyond ensuring the government's own rights to use the software. So,
all too often, the contract will pay 100% of the development costs of
software that is then 100% owned by the contractor, who can then license
it to others under the terms of their choosing, including non-open-source
terms. This is a wasted opportunity.
With NHIN CONNECT (http://connectopensource.org/), no software was
authored by government employees, but by government contractors, who were
asked to release the source under the BSD license (which they did). So
that should be on the list. BSD isn't perfect, Apache would be better as
it provides guarantees against patent claims by contributors over their
contributions, though some might argue that patent grants are implicit in
the BSD license.
IMHO, if the NASA software is written by government employees, it should
be released CC0. If it's a derivate work of a pre-existing codebase, it
should be offered back upstream, offering to sign a contributor agreement
when appropriate, so that the upstream source can then license it as per
the rest of the upstream codebase.
If the software is written under contract, NASA procurement rules should
stipulate the same terms from contractors. After all, contractors argue
that they provide better value per hour than government employees do - to
properly compare apples to apples, they should provide the same work
product. If they hinder the value of what they create - either by putting
non-open-source terms on their code, or even using a copyleft license -
they should do this at a significantly discounted hourly rate to
compensate for the more limited rights conferred. After all, the fewer
restrictions there are on code (and BSD has the fewest aside from CC0),
the more re-usable it is, the more miscable it is, the more fungible it
is, and the more valuable it is.
Finally, after spending a lot of time on this, I've come to the conclusion
that government should not be in the business of aggregating copyrights of
others into collective works - that's much more efficiently and clearly
handled by non-profit organizations, or secondarily by individuals or
corporations. There is a great set of reasons why governments can be
contributors to and even instigators of open source projects, and we
should encourage that. But NASA and other federal agencies, and other
governments I've seen, have a very different (and well-intentioned) set of
policies they have to follow around procurement, public communication, and
community governance that can significantly complicate their dealings with
others. They can not reach what I consider the ideal state, which is a
neutral core a la the ASF or Linux Foundation or Drupal Association,
around which revolves an ecosystem of individuals and institutions that
contribute to and benefit from the code. When HHS fumbled the CONNECT
contract renewal, they set back the development of the nascent CONNECT
community by a year or more. If it were just a function of timing it
would merely have been defensible as bad luck, but I believe it's inherent
in the model.
By that reasoning, the best thing for NASA to do with its open source
projects is not determine which open source licenses to release them
under, but to either contribute them to existing organizations interested
in being a home for them, or seek a contractor to set up a governance
structure and release it themselves (as the VA is doing with VistA).
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