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Free Software Foundation Europe Leads Call For Taxpayer-Funded Software To Be Licensed For Free Re-use

from the public-money,-public-code dept

Free Software Foundation Europe has a new campaign — “Public money, public code” — which poses the following question:

Why is software created using taxpayers’ money not released as Free Software?

And goes on:

We want legislation requiring that publicly financed software developed for the public sector be made publicly available under a Free and Open Source Software licence. If it is public money, it should be public code as well.

It certainly seems pretty ridiculous that code written for public bodies, whether by external companies or contractors paid by the public purse, or produced internally, should not be released as free software. But aside from this being a question of fairness, the FSFE lists other reasons why it makes sense:

Tax savings

Similar applications don’t have to be programmed from scratch every time.

Collaboration

Efforts on major projects can share expertise and costs.

Fostering innovation

With transparent processes, others don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

An open letter on the site, supported by dozens of organizations and open for individual signatures, provides a few more:

Free and Open Source Software is a modern public good that allows everybody to freely use, study, share and improve applications we use on a daily basis.

Free and Open Source Software licences provide safeguards against being locked in to services from specific companies that use restrictive licences to hinder competition.

Free and Open Source Software ensures that the source code is accessible so that backdoors and security holes can be fixed without depending on one service provider.

Considered objectively, it’s hard to think of any good reasons why code that is paid for by the public should not be released publicly as a matter of course. The good news is that this “public money, public code” argument is precisely the approach that open access advocates have used with considerable success in the field of academic publishing, so there’s hope it might gain some traction in the world of software too.

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Comments on “Free Software Foundation Europe Leads Call For Taxpayer-Funded Software To Be Licensed For Free Re-use”

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34 Comments
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Yeah, but one big downside..

I would think there would be a major problem with other coders copying bad code and spreading bad code into other projects. This is not enough to keep publicly sponsored code from being open source, but as with other open source code, there should be a caveat that there is no warranty in the quality of the code.

Now, that might piss off the original coders, but maybe it would also be an incentive to produce better code.

That One Guy (profile) says:

That's easy

Considered objectively, it’s hard to think of any good reasons why code that is paid for by the public should not be released publicly as a matter of course.

Nonsense, if the code is made public then the companies paid to create it can’t sell it again, and again, and again to various agencies who might need it. That’s a great reason!

… oh, you mean good reason from the public’s perspective. Hmm, I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: That's easy

There is another reason to keep it protected:
As soon as you open the source nobody would want to code much. Instead you would get a sparsely connected carpet of licenses for a lot of already available code.

Modern software is a lot of negotiations of legal responsibilities, thus if the software company can’t make the former responsible, they would have to take the legal risks on. Legal risks are very expensive and will thus likely lose the bid for the project in the first place.

Of course we wouldn’t like to end up in the 80’s with monopoly software that extorts agregious licenses, but the value in open software is limited when we talk liability for security breaches, up-time quotas, reliable upgrade schedules support and other needed considerations.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: That's easy

Nonsense, if the code is made public then the companies paid to create it can’t sell it again, and again, and again to various agencies who might need it.

I wouldn’t count on that. Plenty of open-source companies have managed to make money selling binary-packaged software, support, access to update servers, etc. For an agency that relies on stability, reliability, uptime, and security, direct access to the developers is a pretty important value-add.

TheResidentSkeptic (profile) says:

Relevance?

A lot of government code has no value outside of the agency it was created for. (a lot has no value INSIDE the agency it was created for) The code to issue a permit to build a boat dock doesn’t have a lot of usage outside of an environmental agency. The code to create and issue social security numbers probably shouldn’t be released.
OTOH, there are a LOT of utility programs that absolutely could and should be shared. A lot of value could be gained from the FOSS world taking them, enhancing them, and sharing them.

Oops. “sharing”. Well, that’s gonna upset the trolls…

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Relevance?

The code to issue a permit to build a boat dock doesn’t have a lot of usage outside of an environmental agency.

Perhaps, but it seems like it would be adaptable to other countries that need to issue boat dock permits. Or other permits.

And hey, maybe I’m a software developer with a boat and I run into some kind of problem with the permit application process. If the software is open-source, then I can post a patch; ideally, a government agency using FOSS will have a process for accepting, auditing, and merging patches from outside sources.

The code to create and issue social security numbers probably shouldn’t be released.

We’re talking about Europe, so we’re not really talking about SSNs in this example.

That said, I don’t see how security through obscurity is going to help with SSNs. We’re talking about a program that’s been around for 75 years; I gotta figure the formula is well-known at this point. That doesn’t mean anybody can just use a numerically-valid SSN, because all valid SSNs are already recorded and attached to identifying information. Being able to generate an SSN with the formula is not enough, by itself, to be useful; you need to know an SSN and the personal information of the person it belongs to.

It’s like how the formula for generating valid credit card numbers is known, but just because you enter a credit card number that passes a validation check doesn’t mean it’s a real credit card that you can charge money to.

Anonymous Coward says:

Along this line of logic, the size of the government matters. If the city of Denver pays for some piece of software, should the city of Chicago benefit from that. Their tax payers didn’t contribute. If US federal dollors are used to make software, should the rest of the world be able to use it? Limiting software distribution can be hard, giving it away to anyone also means giving it away to everyone.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Wouldn’t all those details be covered in the contract used to define the purchase?

afaik, If it is a work for hire, the writer is paid and does not retain any copyright/patent/trademark/whatever. In this case, denver could share or not, is this really an issue?

If denver purchases an off the shelf item, it most likely is not open source and there are etrms and conditions etc

Not sure what your point is.

Anonymous Coward says:

and govt funded information

e.g. in UK, although address information / mapping of UK was publicly funded this is not available for free. The cost of reverse geocoding are disproportionately high for “one man band” / small companies and so a definite barrier to innovation.
… Ironically with Google allowing free mapping calls in Android apps, one of the few areas of geographical related software innovation is in android apps as this allows experimentation without big financial outlay.

Anonymous Coward says:

What about off the shelf software?

The problem is defining what is being written specifically for government and what is being written for more general use that the government happens to need as well. Does Windows become free and open sourced just because Microsoft writes a special version of it for the government?

Of course that’s the desire of many FOSS advocates. But just as laws like SESTA would be abused for other purposes, this would be abused by some to try and make many closed source application become FOSS. It’s dishonest either way to act like this is something that could do no harm.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What about off the shelf software?

Does Windows become free and open sourced just because Microsoft writes a special version of it for the government?

MS could choose to open-source Windows or cede this area to their competitors. They don’t have some right to impose arbitrary terms on the government, and the government shouldn’t have any requirement to use Windows specifically.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Does Windows become free and open sourced just because Microsoft writes a special version of it for the government?”

When the government buys something, there is a ton of paperwork filled out, contract being a part of that paper stack. Within that contract one would find the details of which you speak.

You last claim seems a bit silly, and potentially dishonest.

Anonymous Coder says:

Not really what happens

Watching the clip I must say that the picture that is painted doesn’t really align itself with my experience.

Let me try to explain.

You could say that administrations broadly have need for 2 types of software:

  • the off-the-shelf packages for fairly routine tasks that most administrations perform
  • custom developed software to perform very administration-specfic tasks

The first category contains things like word processors, email-clients (and -servers), reporting tools, spreadsheets, etc. These are tools that most administrations will license and not have someone custom build for them. Mind you that these tools already existed and there was no need to re-develop them. The administration is simply another client.

The second category contains mostly custom-built software. It’s the very specific software to treat things like applications for building permits or for starting a new business. The software in this category is not some off-the-shelf package, but rather very much built-to-spec. The fact that the software is built to closely support the needs of the specific administration makes for poor reusability. And thus, in my experience, this software is not licensed by the administration, but owned by it!

The clip seems to conflate these 2 types.

In the 24 years I’ve been working in the software industry, I’ve had numerous contracts for various levels of public administration creating custom software for them. And every time, the software we created for these administrations became the property of said administration.

They own the software in every sense, including all documentation and source code, and there is literally nothing to stop them from re-using, re-writing, modifying, adding to, giving away or sharing all or parts of the software. They can do it themselves, or hire anyone to do it (including us).

So the picture that is painted in the clip, where we spend taxpayer money to create custom software and then are restricted from re-using or modifying it because of licensing schemes, in practice doesn’t exist that much.

Sure, you could argue that the administrations should do a better job of sharing and re-using (parts of) these applications that they own, but that sounds more like a political problem than a software licensing problem…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not really what happens

Sure, you could argue that the administrations should do a better job of sharing and re-using (parts of) these applications that they own

Common problems in preventing that re-use are :

Proper modularization and packaging of functionality.

Documenting the available functionality in ways that allow it to be found, and accurately describing what it does.

The loose coupled development of open source software solves these problems, as they are often also the boundaries between independent developers.

Anonymous Coder says:

Re: Re: Not really what happens

Sorry, but no.

While the architectural and documentational problems that you cite could probably hamper re-use, they do not necessarily occur. It’s not because the coding we develop doesn’t have an ‘open source’ label that we have sloppy standards concerning documentation, coding standards, functional decomposition, etc.

The biggest problem I encounter is that most of the written code deals with topics, datasets and business rules that are so very specific for a given set of problems of a particular administration that it becomes useless for any other purpose.

The open source benefits you cite only come into play when the number of independent developers that actively maintain a piece of code is large enough.

And that is directly related to the number of places that are confronted with a similar enough set of problems waiting for a solution.

anonymous says:

Think of the Security Holes!

Do you really want to expose the source code of public sector software to everyone? with the poor development standards there will be holes everywhere..

This is the software that they use to store and manage your supposedly secure information like social security numbers right? It’s almost entirely insecure as it is.. But why not? Just open it to everyone and anyone for free access! sounds like a great plan..

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Think of the Security Holes!

Do you really want to expose the source code of public sector software to everyone? with the poor development standards there will be holes everywhere..

Yes.

Security through obscurity is bullshit. Proprietary software gets pwned all the time. Which browser has better security, Edge (mostly closed) or Chrome (mostly open)?

You are correct that if people are able to examine the source, it becomes easier to find vulnerabilities. But that cuts both ways: it means it’s easier for white hats to find and report vulnerabilities.

The most secure system isn’t the one that’s the hardest for people to see inside. It’s the one that every security expert has examined in minute detail.

Roger Pearse (profile) says:

An example: Fraktur OCR

This is an excellent idea. May I give an example of software funded but then hidden away?

In Germany from 1500-1941, a lot of books were printed in Gothic-style typefaces. These are very hard to read, and impossible to use scanning (OCR) software on. They are known collectively as “Fraktur”. Nobody uses it any more, as Hitler banned it, in a rare moment of sanity. Getting the content of these old books online and searchable is, therefore, pretty hard. But German scholarship from the 19th century is really still important, so this is not good.

A few years ago the European Commission paid OCR firm Abbyy to create OCR software for Fraktur, which was a very good idea. Abbyy was a good choice, as they are Russian and support Cyrillic and other weird character sets. Abbyy Finereader is the market leader in OCR, and very good it is too.

Well Abbyy produced the Fraktur recognition software, and apparently it works well. But … you can’t buy it. It’s not part of Finereader. Only large institutions can get licenses for it. What they pay… well who knows?

So the taxpayer funded a piece of software that taxpayers do want to use – I wanted to use it the other day – but cannot. It’s purely for bureaucrats at large state-funded institutions.

Let’s hope this lawsuit has a positive outcome!

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