Friday, August 6, 2010


Today's columnist is Christopher Sean Morrison from BRL-CAD. He writes:

"If the Trojan horse had been made of glass, Troy never would’ve fallen."

Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems Co-founder

High atop an office building on the outskirts of Washington D.C., a bunch of U.S. government software developers from around the country got together this week with a common vision: more open source. I was among this collection of geeky, coffee-drinking, sandal-wearing patriots, most of whom work directly or indirectly for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) where we're part of a grassroots movement to promote the use and development of open source by government organizations. This was the second working group meeting of the Mil-OSS community, where a collection of civilians, military, and contractors gathered to discuss topics of policy, philosophy, legalities, life, liberty, and the pursuit of open source. The wealth of insights, planning, case studies, recommendations, and even a bit of coding on the spot are helping to establish a growing trend towards the establishment of GLOSS: Government Libre Open Source Software.

From the traditionally secretive military industrial complex has blossomed a belief that the old way of doing business is fundamentally changing. It's changing fast. By necessity, to remain competitive and productive, development is becoming more open, dynamic, collaborative, and social. The open source proponents working within the DoD have been laying a foundation to facilitate change not only within the military, but throughout all branches of the U.S. government. This change is reaching a tipping point as more and more agencies adopt strategies for managing open source software, realize how much open source they already use, and observe the benefits being garnered by others that adopt and promote Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS).

So what makes GLOSS different from FLOSS? Why the GLOSS vs. FLOSS distinction at all? While it is very true that most of the same principles of open source apply, governments around the world are faced with unique challenges as participants in an open source arena. A primary distinction is one of intellectual property and rights management. Most governments must abide by a completely different set of rules and regulations than those that apply to individuals or businesses. Most governments are not in the business of competing with commercial industry. To the contrary, many are explicitly prohibited by federal statutes to do so. The legalities can be considerably complex to navigate.

Consider a "simple" matter of copyright. In most countries, someone who writes some software automatically has a set of intrinsic rights as the author or creator of an original work. One of the most basic intellectual property rights is the ability to authorize others to use your original work on agreed terms. Unlike the fair use and fair dealing doctrines that attempt to ensure that individuals have some basic protections of their own as users, copyright holders have considerably broader rights on their work in part due to protections ensured by the Berne Convention. The Berne Convention is an international agreement signed into law by most countries to help ensure that copyright protections are completely automatic in most countries, without the need to register or notify anyone. When a government produces a work, however, different laws come into play and can vary wildly from country to country.

For example, the United States considers works by U.S. government employees as being not entitled to domestic copyright protection. The U.S. government can claim copyright on their works in other countries, just not with their own citizens that paid for that work. To make matters more complicated, the U.S. government can be assigned copyright, but the circumstances of those rules are governed by a body of federal acquisition laws with numerous complexities. In Canada and other commonwealth realms, the government does make a claim of copyright -- a "Crown copyright" -- on works produced by government employees. The rules can be particularly complicated and vary substantially from country to country, but you get the idea.

So with all of that complexity, why does GLOSS even matter? The reason is simple. Governments around the world employ a massive number of people and affect the behavior of an even larger proportion of industry. Well over a million people work for the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom. More than 1.6 million people work for Indian Railways, the state-owned railway company of India. At nearly two million civilian employees and 2% percent of the entire national workforce, the U.S. federal government is the nation's largest employer with a majority working for the DoD (and that doesn't even include the Postal Service, intelligence agencies, or government contractors). Around the world, governments are spending time and money developing massive amounts of software, but in only exceptionally rare contributions are those released as open source.

The past couple years have been particularly exciting for the Mil-OSS community as a new trend has been emerging within the U.S. government to shift more towards open operations. On his first day of office, January 21st, 2009, U.S. president Barack Obama gave guidance to the federal workforce that a presumption in favor of disclosure should be adopted for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. That was immediately followed by another memo calling for "an unprecedented level of openness in Government." That transparency memo reads like a HOWTO for directly supporting open source with visionary claims that:

  • Government should be transparent

  • Government should be participatory

  • Government should be collaborative

This guidance, while long overdue, ultimately reinforced and helped accelerate a trend towards open source that was already under way. Open source is in pervasive use throughout most governments. Like many corporations, governments rely on popular open source software products such as Linux, Apache, Bind, GCC, Firefox, MySQL, Kerberos, and dozens more as part of critical IT infrastructure. The accelerant has been notable direct contributions to open source by government agencies releasing their own source code as open source software.

Examples of open source contributions include NASA's extensive suite of open source projects, the U.S. Army converting BRL-CAD into an open source project, the NSA developing SELinux, and the White House releasing numerous Drupal modules after deploying a new website built on Drupal. Many departments and agencies within the U.S government now have one or more notable open source projects.

There still remain many challenges down the road ahead. Most governments are terrible at interactive participatory communication, collaboration, and transparency even after directed to be that way. Individuals can help, however, by engaging agencies with specific requests and attainable goals. Canadians can file a request for access to unclassified records under the Access to Information Act. If you're in the U.S., you can file a FOIA request for specific data. With source code in hand, citizens are empowered to help their governments adopt a GLOSS perspective on their works by releasing it for them. GLOSS will become a major player across the diverse FLOSS ecosystem.

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