Should governments encourage open source?

As mentioned in earlier posts, Yours Truly presented at a conference in Rwanda a couple of weeks ago. The conference was attended by African IP officials, and dealt mostly with software protection topics such as software patents, open source software and standards. However, I was surprised to find that one of the topics that interested the attendees the most was not software protection as such, but government software procurement guidelines.

This may seem like an incredibly dry subject (I can already hear mouse buttons busily changing page), but government software procurement has become the latest battlefront between proprietary and non-proprietary software. For example, some of you may remember the big keruffle when the International Intellectual Property Alliance submitted a paper to the U.S. Trade Representative accusing countries that favoured open source software in their legislation, and asking that they should be placed in Special 301 Watchlist, which is usually reserved to countries rife with piracy.

The reasons why this has become such a hot topic should be easy to see, but I will once more restate the obvious. Software is big business, and governments are big customers for software companies. Just think of education, where getting your software installed in all computers located in schools and universities could translate into millions of dollars in licensing fees. If a government were to favour free and open source software for such big contracts, this could have a tremendous effect on the local software market.

The main area of dispute is precisely in procurement regulation and legislations. There are countries that have been considering passing laws that favour open source software over proprietary commercial software. Even as far back as 2001, several countries were interested in passing bills that would compel government agencies to prioritise free software over closed solutions. While many of these proposals never were made into law (thanks in part of strong lobbying from proprietary software providers), some laws have remained in place, particularly in local governments (e.g. Italy and Brazil).

The subject has become so important that it was even the first subject that the new president of Costa Rica addressed in her new YouTube channel, where she answers questions posed by citizens. While she said that open source is very important, she did not go as far as to claim that open source should be required by the government. On the contrary, she favoured the principle of technological neutrality, where all software licensing solutions would be considered.

I am on record stating that software procurement legislation that forces public administration to use free and open source software are misguided. FOSS is a grass-roots, bottom-up approach to development, and making it compulsory is in my opinion contrary to the principles of freedom that it supposedly espouses. FOSS should win on its own merits if it is the best solution. We have to be honest and recognise that sometimes some FOSS projects may not be properly documented, and there may not be support for the software. Getting something without having to pay for a software licence does not immediately mean that the product is free.

Having said that, there is a good argument to be made for open source software in developing countries, where purchasing large numbers of licences would be too expensive, particularly in education. If information and communication technologies are to be used as a tool for development, then FOSS will be of vital importance to reducing costs.

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