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Open-source battle rages in Oregon

The divisions over a bill requiring the state to consider open-source products in software bids offers a microcosm of policy debates under way in governments across the globe.

The front line in the legislative battle over open source moves to Oregon this week.
More on the push for open-source

A group of open-source advocates and critics will meet behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon, in the first of at least two meetings in search of a compromise on what could be the first bill in the United States to encourage the use of open-source software by a state government.

The bill, introduced by Oregon Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, last month, would require the state to consider using open-source software when buying new programs. Although the bill does not specifically mandate open-source software over proprietary software, the bill does say it cannot be excluded from the selection process. The bill, HB 2892, also says open-source options can "significantly reduce the state's costs of obtaining and maintaining software."

Although the bill is in a nascent stage, it's quickly drawn the ire of companies, including Microsoft and the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC), a group that's popped up in the wake of similar legislative efforts in other countries. Opponents of the bill say governments can already choose open-source software, and they worry that the legislation could set a dangerous precedent of a government mandating certain types of software over others.

"It's classic preference legislation that isn't needed," Mike Wendy, policy counsel for the ISC, said.

Similar battles over open-source software legislation are playing out across the globe as legislatures in places from Austin, Texas, to Brussels, Belgium, are considering measures that would carve out considerations for open source when a government buys new software.

These days, the conflict is especially heated in Oregon, where open-source advocates are working hard to pass the bill amid anti-Microsoft feelings sparked in part by an antipiracy crackdown that targeted the state's education system. Last year, Microsoft sent letters to some Oregon schools suggesting that they pay up for new licensing agreements or risk becoming the target of software piracy audits.

At a hearing last week before Oregon's House General Government Committee in Salem, supporters and critics of Barnhart's measure squared off in an effort to convince legislators to either adopt or abandon the legislation. The event was a microcosm of the larger debate over open-source legislation in governments around the world, especially as open-source advocates--who promote their software as cheaper and more flexible than proprietary versions--are starting to grab the attention of cash-crunched governments.

Lined up behind the measure at last week's hearing were Linux user groups and developers, along with school district representatives, some who

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testified that they were able to save so much money using open-source software that they could afford to hire additional teachers. Eric Harrison, with the Multnomah Education Service District, said the district has saved $200,000 a year since it began using open-source programs. "We have found that open-source software is often the best-performing, most-reliable, least-expensive solution," he told the committee.

On the other side were representatives of proprietary software makers, including the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and the ISC, who worried that legislators were being misled by claims that open-source software is free of costs.

In testimony prepared for the hearing, Mario Correa, the BSA's software policy director, said the bill would place the state government "squarely in the position of picking technological winners and losers and seeking to influence technological development by fiat, rather than through market forces. We believe that such efforts would ultimately fail, and in the process, prove harmful both to the state and to those Oregonians who make their living in the high-tech industry."

Now, those same supporters and opponents of the bill will conduct a series of closed-door meetings in an effort to hammer out their differences over the legislation. The committee chairman has given the working group until April 15 to come up with a compromise--a task that won't be easy, given the polarized views.

"We would prefer not to see a bill," the ISC's Wendy said. "I don't know if there's some way to tone the language down. Hopefully something can be worked out."

In search of fair play?
Cooper Stevenson, one of the bill's main backers and a member of the Mid-Willamette Valley Linux Users Group, said the legislation isn't designed to give open-source an advantage over proprietary software, but merely to level the playing field. In the past, he said, governments were afraid to adopt open-source software because it wasn't necessarily ready for prime time in terms of user-friendliness and tech support. Now that it is, Stevenson and others want legislation that would require governments to include the software in their decision-making process--and to justify their decision if they don't.

"We've been watching the proprietary software vendors a long time, and we know what they're up to," Stevenson said. "It certainly doesn't seem they're interested in saving Oregon money or in Oregonians' privacy rights."

The suggestions of the working group meeting on Wednesday are not binding, meaning that the committee can incorporate some or all of them

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into the bill or just ignore them if it wants to. If the bill makes it out of this committee, it would then move onto a Ways and Means Committee before both houses of the state legislature would get a chance to vote on it.

Proponents are hoping that a success in Oregon could ignite similar movements across the country. Right now, legislatures in Texas and Oklahoma are also considering bills with open-source code components; Rhode Island also appears poised to do so. A movement to convince California lawmakers to adopt a similar bill never gained steam, partly because it mandated choosing open-source over proprietary software.

Opponents of the movement to carve out open-source protections said they're not as worried about the Texas and Oklahoma efforts, which they expect will not survive. Instead, the groups are focusing their fire on the Oregon bill and on an open-source measure pending in a regional body in Belgium. "We're concerned about the precedential value of this," the ISC's Wendy said. "Other countries and (European Union) members might look to this as a model."

The ISC also is trying to shape the implementation of a presidential decree in Andalusia, Spain, which not only encourages the adoption of open-source technology in education and government centers but also urges promotion among the general population.

There's one thing upon which both sides can agree when it comes to open-source legislation: There's sure to be more of it. Already, regional governments in Pakistan and Brazil have adopted software favorable to open source. And similar measures are percolating worldwide.

Choosing sides
Meanwhile, both sides in the debate are trying to beef up their stable of support.

Backers of the Oregon bill say some well-known software companies have indicated interest in their movement, but so far are not ready to go public. Watching who sides with whom could be one of the most interesting sideshows of the debate.

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Although the bill-bashing ISC includes tech giants Intel and Cisco among its more than 220 members, some software bigwigs are noticeably absent from the list, including Oracle and IBM. Both companies are in a tricky political position in this case, because they have embraced both open-source and proprietary software.

Meanwhile, the fight is sure to heat up. Michael Tiemann--the chief technology officer of Linux vendor Red Hat who marched up San Francisco's Market Street last year in an ill-fated attempt to convince California lawmakers to sponsor an open-source bill--said he'd like to see all 50 states adopt a bill that would let open source in the government's door.

"Open source has often been disparaged by traditional proprietary software companies," said Tiemann, who added that his company is not funding any of the current efforts. "There's probably been some prejudice against open-source software that has to be remedied."

He thinks the open-source bills could be as important for citizens as the voting-right bills passed as a result of pressure from the civil rights movement. "There are very few Americans who are not affected by software in some way, shape or form," he said.