Are All Government Designed Software Projects Open Source?

from the raises-some-serious-questions dept

Brian Phipps digs deep into an article about open source efforts and pulls out an interesting point that's mostly buried in the story: "A Forbes article on open source reports that Mission Viejo firm Medsphere used the Freedom of Information Act to get the source code for federal hospital management software "developed at taxpayer expense." They are now using that software as part of their commercial open source product called OpenVista. Is this a new/valid/ethical way to get source code for a start-up? There must be tens of thousands of Federal applications out there that could have commercial potential. How does the US taxpayer benefit if these apps are exploited via FoIA and commercialized--since we paid for them in the first place. If they were all GPL'd that would be OK, but it's not clear that that's the case." This certainly does raise an awful lot of questions. Getting access to the source code is one thing -- assuming it's then open source is another. Anyone have more details on how this project went from FoIA request to open source software?


Reader Comments (rss)

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    Chris Maresca, Nov 23rd, 2005 @ 12:33pm

    Federally developed applications...

    ... are mostly in the public domain, except when the developing company retains the rights, which sometimes happens or the application is consider 'sensitive'. This is because the US Gov't. is not allowed to copyright any material it produces, which is how anyone and everyone can cite stats, reports, etc. produced by the US Gov't.

    However, that does not mean that they can just be downloaded or are otherwise easily accessible, hence the FOIA request.

    If you do get the source, however, the fact that they are Public Domain (and not copyrighted) means that you can do pretty much whatever you want with them.

    Chris.

     

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      The Other Mike, Nov 23rd, 2005 @ 1:15pm

      Re: Federally developed applications...

      The same applies to state level apps too. Anyone can request a copy of any/all source code done/paid for by a governmental agency so long as it isn't protected by a contract. Emergency apps or apps that could adversely affect the public good if exposed can likely escape this fate, but would probably have to prove the need for that in court. The people's money paid for the developer(s) and such so the people are entitled to do with it as they see fit (or so goes the logic).

      Long story short is that yes people can wait around for the government to develop a technology and then commercialize it as they please. Of course a competing company has the same right to the source code as the first does... And really - when was the last time you saw a government agency do some real innovation in software that isn't sensitive? I am more suprised that they didn't use a commercial app in the first place.

      As Chris said, making the request for the source is the hard part.

       

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      jack, Nov 24th, 2005 @ 1:45am

      Re: Federally developed applications...

      the most important are not open source although some people have had their hands on their source..but they are top secret.

       

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    The Other Mike, Nov 23rd, 2005 @ 1:25pm

    Oh...

    Government projects aren't open source. They are public domain. Open source projects still carry a copyright limitation (note the rootkit usage and lawsuit) like GPL or something. Public Domain does not have any copyright issues since everyone owns it.

     

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      Jasen Webster, Nov 23rd, 2005 @ 3:59pm

      Re: Oh...

      I wonder if this applies to public school districts, providing it doesn't involve sensitive information.

       

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    Paul B, Nov 24th, 2005 @ 11:09pm

    Hackers Etc

    I the source code for these types of applications are released, then exploits could be discovered and imagine then, someones life support is disabled because some korean hacker had the source code.

     

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      Fishbane, Nov 25th, 2005 @ 10:21am

      Re: Hackers Etc

      Someone always has to play on fears that code access==haxxor induced death.

      Those people should learn that if the only thing standing in the way of life-critical security bugs being exploited by evil geeks is a reverse-compiler, then perhaps the most important thing is not whether the code is available. (To spell it out: Why, exactly, can our supposed Korean hacker access grannie's life support system?)

       

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    Duodave, Nov 25th, 2005 @ 10:35am

    Bad news for developers of voting software

    If this was taken to court, it would be very bad news for the developers of voting machines that are not only trying to keep their systems secure, but keep competitors from seeing their source.

    Imagine a developer walking into a courthouse somewhere, paying $2 and saying "I want to see the source code for Diebold's AccuVote."

     

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      Anon, Nov 25th, 2005 @ 11:30am

      Re: Bad news for developers of voting software

      In Diebold's case, I believe Diebold controls its voting machine software as a closed, proprietary asset. The government contracts with Diebold to use the machines, trusting Diebold's assurances that voter fraud is "impossible."

       

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        howard, Nov 26th, 2005 @ 9:02pm

        Re: Bad news for developers of voting software

        If the government bought a car with embedded software, would that force GM, Ford, or Toyota to open source the software?

        Frankly, an open source voting machine makes sense, and shouldn't be that difficult to do.

         

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    howard, Nov 26th, 2005 @ 8:58pm

    No Subject Given

    Having worked on government developed software projects in the past, I believe the word you're looking for is "public domain" versus "open source". Open source has connotations that aren't the same as GPL.

    If a company took public domain software and then tried to apply the GPL to it, it might cause interesting problems. For starters, the person could get the public domain portion free themselves (unecumbered with GPL). The modifications certainly could be released under GPL.

     

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    Alan Kelon Oliveira de Moraes, Nov 27th, 2005 @ 12:49pm

    No Subject Given

    The code is public domain. Just it.

    See [West and Siobhán 2005 @ http://opensource.mit.edu/papers/westomahony.pdf]

     

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