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U.K. urged to hold back on open source

The U.K. government is considering increasing the use of open-source licenses for publicly funded software, but an IT industry group says the risks may outweigh the benefits.

A U.K. tech industry body has urged the U.K. government to show restraint in its use of open-source software, particularly software covered by the General Public License.

Intellect, which is backed by Microsoft, IBM, Intel, BAE Systems and other high-tech heavyweights, said that the requirement of open-source licenses for software funded by the government could have a negative impact on competition for contracts, on the quality of the resulting software and even on the confidentiality of government departments.

In particular, it recommended that the government drop the GNU General Public License (GPL), the license upon which the GNU/Linux operating system is based, from its list of acceptable default licenses for government-funded software. It also urged agencies to, in general, steer clear of the GPL.

The comments appeared in a response paper published last month but more widely publicized last week. Intellect was taking part in a consultation by the U.K. Office of the E-Envoy (OEE) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) on the use of open-source software, which has proposed requiring open-source licenses for publicly funded software development.

The OEE and the DTI are considering establishing open-source license terms as the default for government-funded software. The open-source terms would apply when no other terms were specified, in order to ensure that publicly funded software projects can be utilized and built upon as freely as possible.

Much government-funded software is already released under open-source licenses, but there is no consistent government policy endorsing open source.

Broadly, open-source licenses prevent one organization from taking control of a piece of software by requiring that developers be allowed to examine, modify and redistribute its source code, as long as the modifications are returned to the development community. Under the GPL, any software that incorporates GPL-licensed code becomes itself licensed under the GPL, a requirement that has led proprietary software companies such as Microsoft to describe it as "viral."

Intellect said it has no objection to the use of open-source licenses as such, but is strongly opposed to the use of the GPL. The group argued that the GPL's conditions would prevent the government from profiting from its software, and could estrange proprietary software companies.

"When the Government decides to develop software using a restrictive licensing base, such as the GNU GPL, (it) should be aware that this would prevent it from deriving commercial gain from any subsequent derivative programs and prevent or severely limit the opportunities to work with commercial companies on such projects," Intellect said in the response paper.

Intellect was formed last year from the merger of the Computer Services and Software Association and the Federation of the Electronics Industry and represents about 1,000 U.K. companies.

The group suggested that competition for government software development contracts could be lacking, since many software companies might instead choose to bid for contracts without open-source license requirements. In addition, the software resulting from government contracts might include only basic features; developers would be reluctant to allow their cutting-edge technology to be exposed to the public via an open-source license, Intellect argued.

Intellect also suggested that it would be a mistake for secretive government bodies to use open-source licenses, since these might require the revelation of sensitive information. "There may, in some cases, be a conflict between the Government's desire to maintain confidentiality and the requirement to disclose the software laid down by a restrictive licence, to the extent that the source code itself discloses attributes about the Government body that are regarded as confidential," it stated in the paper.

The group said it was against the use of open-source licenses as a default, arguing that the government should judge bids based purely on cost benefits. It was particularly opposed to a provision that would require even projects with proprietary licenses to revert to an open-source license after two years.

Open-source expansion
Over the past few months, governments in Europe and elsewhere have paid increasingly close attention to the possibilities of open-source software for lowering costs and promoting the free distribution of software innovations. Several European governments have passed or are considering bills that at least require open-source software to be considered alongside proprietary software, while the German city of Munich recently moved to replace nearly 14,000 desktop PCs with Linux computers.

Several studies in recent months have found that open source is well-suited to public-sector use, and that it's fitted particularly well for the needs of developing countries. However, open-source software in general--and Linux in particular--are seen as a threat by many companies. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently identified Linux as the company's chief threat.

Mitre, a not-for-profit engineering and information technology organization that works with the U.S. federal government, in a report last autumn found that open-source software is essential for running the U.S. Department of Defense and recommended that, in some cases, the use of the GPL should be encouraged in order to speed up software development.

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"The combination of an ambiguous status and largely ungrounded fears that it cannot be used with other types of software are keeping FOSS (free and open-source software) from reaching optimal levels of use," the Mitre report stated.

The draft policy on the use of open-source licenses with government-funded software is part of a broader policy on open source that was published last summer by the U.K. Office of Government Commerce (OGC).

In this policy, the U.K. government said that, in all future IT developments where interoperability is an issue, it would only use products that support open standards and specifications. Furthermore, it said it would follow a European Commission policy document that suggested exploring the open-source route for all government-funded software research and development.

The U.K. government is expected to conduct a broad public consultation on the draft policy later this year.

ZDNet UK's Matthew Broersma reported from London. ZDNet UK's Matt Loney contributed to this report.