Subject: Re: Software as a public service
From: DV Henkel-Wallace <gumby@henkel-wallace.org>
Date: Mon, 14 Mar 2005 11:46:52 -0800


On 14 Mar 2005, at 07:43, Sergio Montoro Ten wrote:

> I'd like to propose the topic of discussion:
>
> Should a goverment pay a software development for its release as Open
> Source?

I am unclear on what you are asking.

- If the government buys pre-written software (e.g. MS Word) then that 
should convey no special status any more than when it buys an 
automobile tyre or telephone service.  To do anything else would 
essentially be taking by (in US legal terms) "eminent domain"  and 
should be broadly circumscribed (in fact in the US there is currently a 
case before the supreme court specifically about the scope of eminent 
domain).

- If the government pays for software _to be written_ (i.e. either by 
contractors working to government specification or by government 
employees) I think that such software should be explicitly placed into 
the public domain, including source.  Much as I love the GPL I think 
its use in this context would be unjust.

By the way this was in general how it worked into the 1990s in the US.  
The details are hazy in my mind, but for example I seem to remember 
that software written (for example) by NASA could be purchased from 
some organization in Georgia (the state, not the country!) and was 
priced, as a holdover from the day of card decks, per line.

However as easy as my position is to state, it is hard to make work in 
reality:
- Clearly something classified (e.g. written by the NSA for in-house 
use) ought not be released, at least if you accept the premise of 
classified information at all, which I do.
- What about changes to a proprietary program funded by the government? 
  Bug fixes?
- What about indirectly funded and partially-funded work?  Where's the 
dividing line?
- What about de minimus code (e.g. an Excel macro that is written and 
used once in the course of an afternoon?)

That last one is complex, and really is a manifestation of the "open 
meeting" laws we have in California.  Sometimes the cost to support 
them exceeds the benefit the citizenry derives from them...but if you 
allow such an exception you open the door for bad things to potentially 
also happen behind closed doors.

I know that Russ and others might jump in and say that my exception #3 
shouldn't happen anyway, so please take it as a given for this 
question.

But is this really an fs_B_ question or just an FS policy question?

-g