White House Further Embraces Open Source For Government… But Tell It To Do Even More

from the good-to-see dept

With so much annoying stuff coming out of the White House lately, it’s good to see the tech folks there continue to do some good work, including pushing for a policy that should lead to further embracing open source technologies inside the federal government — in part by pushing the government itself to open source the code it writes for its own work (and even when not releasing the code to the public, at least sharing it inside the government for other agencies to use).

This policy requires that, among other things: (1) new custom code whose development is paid for by the Federal Government be made available for reuse across Federal agencies; and (2) a portion of that new custom code be released to the public as Open Source Software (OSS).

This new policy has been put out for comment, and there’s a chance for you to tell the White House to go even farther with this policy. The current request asks if the policy could be improved in the following manner:

Would an ?open source by default? approach that required all new Federal custom code to be released as OSS, subject to exceptions for things like national security, be more or less effective in achieving the goals above?

I think the answer to this question needs to be that, yes, such a policy would be greatly improved by pushing for open source by default. With the current policy stating that just “a portion” of the code is released that way, it almost guarantees that very little will be. Moving to a policy where it’s open source by default would lead to a design mentality that keeps that in mind.

Of course, some may (quite reasonably!) argue that copyright does not apply to any works created by the federal government itself (though it does apply to anything written by contractors, who can then assign that copyright to the government). Thus, if the software in question was created by federal employees, then it should, automatically be in the public domain, in which case the government has no legal right to place any legal restrictions on its use, even open source restrictions. Though, of course, in that case, it still has to make the decision over whether or not to release the code publicly. Unfortunately, the current policy says that it would apply to software written by federal employees as well — and that might actually not be allowed under the law. That software is in the public domain.

Of course, it’s likely that plenty of code used in government is actually written by contractors, and for that code, the default should absolutely be that it be open sourced whenever possible.

For what it’s worth, rather than the annoying standard commenting process for most government comments, this one is being done on Github, so join in.

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Comments on “White House Further Embraces Open Source For Government… But Tell It To Do Even More”

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10 Comments
Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

National Security

Isn’t the data what needs to be secured? Unless the code is hard coded with access keys or methods, what needs to be secured about the code?

Of course, if the code is counting two for them and one for us there is reason for it to be kept secret, but we already know the government is cheating us every way it can and there is no court that will back us against them.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

“…’open source by default’ approach that required all new Federal custom code to be released as OSS, subject to exceptions for things like national security…”

Yes, the IRS tax program source is a matter of national security!
Yes, the EPA superfund manager source is a matter of national security!
Yes, the National Park Service land management source is a matter of national security!
Yes, the National Forest Service park toilet maintenance scheduler source is a matter of national security!

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Free Software isn’t free to the maker. Their cost in time, knowledge, creativity, and other resources may not be passed on to you, but it most certainly isn’t free.

Open source is different in that it may not be free to you, but the ‘source code’ is inspect-able by you or anyone. That makes it better because if it is in fact inspected by many, more of the bugs that inhabit all software will be found.

That process is made more difficult by the fact that reading source code is a skill that is more rare than the ability to write source code. I reference Robert Glass, Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Free Software (esp. when capitalized) refers to software that respects your freedom, but not necessarily available at the price of zero. It’s free as in “free speech”, not “free beer”. See The Free Software Definition for more details.

Likewise, just having the source code available doesn’t mean something is Open Source. Its license must also satisfy other criteria such as allowing derivative works and non-discrimination. See The Open Source Definition for more details.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

When looking at something, everybody sees something different. While the definitions you point to are valid, they do not mean the definitions I referred to are not. Neither set of definitions are all encompassing, nor do I think they were intended to be. But thanks for pointing out an important alternative.

M. Alan Thomas II (profile) says:

While you’re right that code by federal employees would be in the public domain in the United States, open source or (preferably) a CC0 license would still be necessary to overcome foreign copyrights.* The United States government has always reserved the right to enforce foreign copyrights over material it’s barred from copyrighting domestically, and I’m given to understand that it has—on rare occasion—actually done so. Thus, licensing of that content remains an issue for many software developers living in other countries.

*The code would only be public domain in countries that use the rule of the shorter term and consider the U.S. term to be of zero length with respect to noncopyrightable content. Or which lack copyright laws, I suppose.

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