Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competition

The right of passage no one noticed.

Earlier this year, a major open-source event came and went without much community notice and with little media attention. A Cabinet-level federal agency released a software product under the GPL, making it the first tool of its kind to be licensed by the US government free of charge to public and private sector organizations.

Although the Open Source and Industry Alliance praised the effort in a letter to Secretary Elaine Chao, some of us wonder if this kind of event will happen ever again. This story received little to no attention by the media, yet it created quite a stir within the government software vendor community. The backlash might have government officials thinking twice the next time the subject comes up.

Opportunities seem rare in the case of the government releasing GPL software. First, the government wants industry to bring solutions to government problems rather than have government agencies develop their own software. That makes it difficult for procurement officials to find their "best value proposition". Secondly, open-source vendors do not have the funds, organization and alliances to educate procurement officials the way proprietary firms do. So, government agencies buy licensed software products almost universally.

So, when a government agency does put GPL software on a Web site and let people download it for free, that's an important milestone. It's not one we should take lightly.

How It Happened

Peter Gallagher, of DevIS worked diligently for several months to have the first federally funded GPL project released. When he finally saw light at the end of the tunnel, he realized he achieved his goal but not without a high degree of difficulty. It took nine months of negotiations, extensive legal fees and many sleepless nights--a high cost for a small business. He still wonders if he created a model agencies can follow in the future. Peter explains:

Our experience working with the Dept. of Labor to have our work released under an OSS license was telling. Here we are talking about software development that was funded by the government as opposed to buying a license in an existing product. The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) have something called "Rights in Data" that are part of any Federal contract. The basic clause says authors generally have the right to their copyright--this applies to a research paper as well as software although it does get complicated.

To release under the OSS license you need to have a copyrighted work, and the government generally does not create copyrighted works. So in the case of the DoL, DevIS transferred our copyright to the DoL who released the work. I think it would have been easier to just have us release the code directly as a small business. Developing the copyright transfer document cost us over $20,000 in legal fees but in this case our customer, the DoL, wanted the responsibility. The important thing for us was that a product we developed, primarily with federal funds, was now released on a .GOV site as OSS.

Companies should be able to release such code without difficulty. When DevIS requested its copyright, the customer hesitated and decided not to release the copyright. That began rounds of negotiations, which ended with DevIS giving the copyright to the DoL, which in turn placed the product under the GPL, albeit awkwardly. You can download the software after you agree to the license and register with the agency--not exactly a FLOSS approach.

Is Government Software Really Public?

Many of us seem confused about the federal government's ability to fund, copyright and release code under the GPL. I discussed this topic with a number of people who pointed me to the United States Code, Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105. It states:

Subject matter of copyright: United States Government works: Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.

Peter explains:

In many cases, assuming the software is not proprietary, the work is available to the whole government for unlimited use and it falls under the public domain. Public domain materials can be requested by anyone, but in practice the people who know about an internal government project are limited. Thus, being available to the public does not mean anyone would know to ask [for it]. So is it really public?

______________________

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

There is at least one governement software package that's been for >15 years. It's the Dept of Veterans Affairs' VISTA
system (originally called DHCP).

It's a full fledged hospital software package, managing everything from PACS to patient scheduling to building maintenance. It's been adopted (and adapted) in other government agencies and public/private hospitals in the US and abroad.

Originally written in MUMPS, in the last year, it's even been ported to Linux and is available for download.

Open Source GIS 2004--Ottawa

Anonymous's picture

Just got back from the Open Source GIS 2004/MapServer Users Meeting last week in Ottawa. Great participation and sponsorship by a number of Canadian federal agencies and U.S. departments around open source GIS. The National Atlas of Canada is now on-line using the U. of Minnesota's open source MapServer. Other U.S. agencies like the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers are using open source for some of their stuff, and of course they wrote the original GRASS. Now there are 17 open source GIS projects, some running in Java. Check out:

http://www.gismonitor.com

for a summary of the conference.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

In an election year, I doubt this will become much of an issue, especially in light of the media's focus. But, wouldn't it be something if the people somehow demanded that such a clause exist in every RFP issued in the future?

Actually, a loud, public outcry is the last thing needed or wanted. Drawing attention to this change would only give the big boys a chance to fire up their lobbying efforts to shut it down.

The first thing I'd suggest is find OSS knowledgeable/friendly Congresscritters and pitch them individually on the idea of making a call for OSS a mandatory part of the RFP. It might take some time to educate them on how they and their constituents benefit of OSS, but it might be possible to get this language added quietly and without inexpensive lovvying efforts.

The way to not do it is to go in loaded for bear and try to wow them with geekery.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

I find the uproar about GPL, "open source", etc. quite amusing, especially the claims about "first this" and "first that". Does no one remember the vast amount of public domain software given to the world by all sorts of people (to include many government agencies) back in the 80's? Remember SIMTEL20, the big old DEC-20 at White Sands Proving Grounds, one of the first open archives on the ARPAnet? It was full of Unix, CP/M, MS-DOS, and other OS software, and a huge amount of it was public domain with full documented source.

It was simple then: if you wrote it for the government, it was public domain. Period. So you put it out anywhere (SIMTEL20, FIDO, USENET, wherever), with the documentation and source clearly showing PUBLIC DOMAIN.

Bitta bing bitta boom.

I gotta go back and drag out a bunch of old stuff I did for the government (usually contract but sometimes just on a whim). Invariably I simply licensed the government (or more often the US Army) to use the software, but not distribute it beyond that agency. The contract and documentation clearly specified that I kept the copyright. And then I released it to the public domain.

No problem.

What's the big deal? Why spend twenty thousand bucks on lawyers?

I know, if the government contracts you to develop from scratch, it's a different ball game. And the rules have changed from the early 80's, when in fact I developed a system from scratch for the Army .. but retained the copyright. It was a simpler world perhaps.

I wonder if I have that code on anything but a Commodore 64 disk? I hope :-) It was a multi-user networked (yeah, on C-64's) system to teach Morse Code (send and receive) to groups of Special Forces radiomen, monitored by SF NCO instructors at their Radio School at Fort Bragg NC. Worked great, FAR better than the old hard-wired system using keys, oscillators, speakers and tape recorders. And the price was a deal: $5000 for the whole development (not including the several dozen C-64's, monitors, network boards, etc.). Nearest competitor was a big mini up at Fort Devens MA, teaching receive-only to ASA radio intercept guys .. and that puppy cost millions!

Might as well give away the code, should have done it decades ago. For what it's worth.

David Kirschbaum
Toad Hall

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Interesting slant.

Lousy suggestion by the commentor.

The author didn't state that people should go out and raise cain.

He said wouldn't it be nice.

He seems very pragmatic - unlike the commentor.

Why GPL?

Anonymous's picture

I know I'm opening up a can of worms:

But why the GPL? I would think that a BSD-style license would be a better idea. Companies (of all sizes) pay taxes too and once the code is payed for by the tax payer then anyone should be able to use it for whatever they want.

Though public domain may be appropriate, if code is licensed, it should be under a license less restrictive than GPL. (IMHO.)

Heck, BSD Unix spawned Sun OS, and the BSD stack was used in how many other OSes? Let's not forget sendmail (say what you will about it) and BIND (ditto). Yes, the Internet grew of OSS, but it was the type of OSS was that anyone (!) could do whatever they wanted with.

Re: Why GPL?

Anonymous's picture

Or it should be under multiple licenses, including GPL and non-GPL (BSD, ...).

Because the GNU GPL preserves freedom for derivatives.

Anonymous's picture

Or it should be under multiple licenses, including GPL and non-GPL (BSD, ...).

If that happened only the people who wanted to give away their code would build on the BSD licensed code. Given the number of GPL-covered projects out there compared to the number of BSD (or similarly licensed) projects out there, I think it's fair to say that most developers would not want to compete with a derivative of their own work. Therefore most would choose to build on the GPL derivative or make a GPL-covered derivative of their own. This is why proprietors can sometimes be convinced to make a GPL-covered version of a program but rarely convinced to use a non-copylefted license such as the new BSD.

J.B. Nicholson-Owens (jbn@forestfield.org)

Re: Why GPL?

Anonymous's picture

One would assume that once the government owns the copyright, they would want to wind up giving it away only to have to pay per-seat when some other company builds a closed-source application and resells it. If you're going to build on Uncle Sam's code, you darn well better let him use the derivatives to give others the same advantage you had.

Re: Why GPL?

Anonymous's picture

I've been involved in preparing a (large, DoD) package for GPL release for exactly that reason. Concern that one of the contractors we use will tweak it and sell it back to us.

--Erik [ http://math.smsu.edu/~erik ]

Give credit where credit is due.

Anonymous's picture

The GNU General Public License (GPL) was written years before there was an "open source" movement. Linking together the open source movement with the GPL misstates history and authorship. The language used in the GPL and the freedoms it talks about are not part of the philosophy of the open source movement, they are part of the free software movement which created the free software community we still enjoy today 20 years later. The real author of the GPL is the FSF (most notably, Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen). In a post to the GCC mailing list responding to someone who wanted to help the "open source community", RMS said

Open source advocates do contribute to our community, when they work on free software packages, but our community is older than that movement, and owes its existence to the idealism that movement rejects. It was built by the free software movement, so it is the free software community. If you help us, please keep in mind that what you're helping is the free software movement.

ESR would similarly miscredit the open source movement when he referred to a number of programs as "open-source" projects even though they were written before that movement existed:

[...] Many other open-source projects of the order of complexity of the early Linux kernel predated it; the BSD Unixes, for example, or the Emacs editor. [...]

Maybe the authors of the various BSD OSes and the authors of the Linux kernal don't mind being lumped in with that movement, but ESR also includes Emacs which was co-written by RMS, founder of the free software movement. Emacs was most certainly not written with the open source movement in mind nor to benefit those ideals. Emacs was written to benefit the free software movement. RMS has repeatedly stated how he does not want to be lumped in with the open source movement. The FSF provides a concise and informative description of the differences between the two movements which includes RMS asking the reader to know enough about the movements to distinguish between their philosophies.

So what did the open source movement do? The Open Source Initiative placed the GPL on a list of approved licenses. Open source advocates have contributed to practical projects and endorsed the GPL. I'm sure the free software advocates have no issue with endorsing the GPL and increasing its use. But the reason this license protects ones freedoms to share and modify software so well is not due to anything anyone at the OSI or the open source movement has done. Thus it is not fair for that movement to receive credit for the GPL.

J.B. Nicholson-Owens (jbn@forestfield.org)

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

One thing that is very unclear to me is why it was necessary for Devis to donate the copyright to the USG. If Devis wanted a GPL'd project why not keep the copyright and GPL the code itself?

Its also not clear to me, once the USG had the copyright assigned to it, why it would want the code to be GPL. What purpose does the government think is served by making the terms the software is available under more restrictive than the public domain? Access to the source is cited but code can be made available whether its public domain or GPL.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

So that people and corporations can't close the commons behind them.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

The USG releases mountains of information, from maps, to videos, to statistics, to court documents. They let people use it however they like by putting it in the public domain. Some derivative works are proprietary, some are not. I didn't see any evidence in the article that the USG was changing its position on this general policy, in fact I am fairly certain USG information disclosure law does not agree with you.

I wish the article had more information on why the government was doing this.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Actually this allow the DoL to change the product license or stop distributing it. The DoL wants to have the flexibility to adopt what ever license makes sense in the future.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Access to source *can* be made available with Public Domain, but it is not required. As a taxpayer, you should take comfort knowing the original, and any derived source code, will be available.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

They own the copyright, thus the GPL does not apply to them. The license they release it under has no bearing on whether they put it on a website or not.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Because the GPL REQUIRES that the source is made available. PD does not.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

If the government owns the copyright (as is the case here) the GPL does not apply to them. They let other people use and modify the software under the GPL.

If the USG want to make the source available then it should make the source available. The license they make it available as has no bearing on whether they do that or not.

Not the first and by far

Anonymous's picture

The first GPL required US government funded project I know of is
the NYU GNAT project which is an Ada GCC front-end, see History in
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_programming_language

This was back in 1994 or some such.

Laurent
laurent@guerby.net

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

I realize that the article is not about the actual software being released, but the fact that it was released at all the difficulty it took to get it released. But still, the questions the reader always has in their mind as they read your article is "What software?" and "What does the software do?" You do have links to external sites that do mention the software, but that really isn't good enough. A quick paragraph at the beginning, mentioning the name of the software and what purpose it serves (both generically and specifically to the agency that developed it) would have put the reader's mind at ease and enabled them to enjoy the rest of the article.

workforceconnections.dol.gov

Anonymous's picture

Introducing the U.S. Department of Labor's Workforce Connections™ - a set of Web-based tools that empower non-technical individuals to create, acquire, share and control content in real-time.

Workforce Connections™ is the first tool of its kind to be licensed by the U.S. government free of charge to public and private sector organizations.

http://workforceconnections.dol.gov/

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Good point.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

hehe, I clicked the parent post thinking it would be a link to the software

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Appears to be plone based. Awesome job guys.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

It also includes an older release of Moodle (http://moodle.org) which is actually an Australian product.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Actually, no it's not Plone based. Zope based, certainly, but not Plone/CMF. It is a complete custom content management system. See also: http://pythonology.org/success&story=ezro

Not the first.. Remeber SELinux?

Anonymous's picture

Federal funds paid for the creation of SELinux by the NSA.

See here:

http://www.nsa.gov/selinux/index.cfm

Early Linux networking code assigned to DIRNSA

Anonymous's picture

That code was formally released in 1993 after a six month review process.

Re: Not the first.. Remeber SELinux?

Anonymous's picture

Right. But it wasn't a from scratch GPL license. In fact, the license is the Linux one. DoL contracted for devIS to build the product, then copyright it and GPL it. SELinux wasn't GPL'd by NSA.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

You wanted to say ``rites of passage'', I think? Or was that some sort of awkward pun?

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Certainly, it's a pun, as in, civil rights or inherent right or right of way. The series on Linux Access in Government played on the idea of having an access road to a freeway or converting government applications (which rely heavily on MS Acess) to mysql or postgress. I consider it like a literary easter egg. You found this one!

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

> converting government applications (which rely heavily on MS Acess)

Uhm, as one who has worked on "government applications" for 22 years I can say that the vast majority of them run on Oracle, DB/2 or CA/DATACOM. Ok, maybe this is just for the Army (I have only worked in IT for the DoD/Army) but there's a lot of apps I've been party to. The only MS Access apps are little in-house things used at the Branch or maybe the Division level.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

Selling to local law enforcement & city governments, I must say that Access, MSSqlServer, and even MySQL is _far_ more prevalent (when counting # of applications) than Oracle. 15000 of the 20000 or so law enforcement agencies in the US are smaller than 20 people (think your small town police department); and about zero of those can afford Oracle.

In my experience, with the Feds, it's not uncommon to find a system using MSSqlServer and Oracle.

Re: Linux in Government: Federal Contracts, a New Era of Competi

Anonymous's picture

They're ever present in courthouses, jail management systems, court dockets, Computer aided dispatch, librares, etc.

Not many in the DoD.

Webinar
One Click, Universal Protection: Implementing Centralized Security Policies on Linux Systems

As Linux continues to play an ever increasing role in corporate data centers and institutions, ensuring the integrity and protection of these systems must be a priority. With 60% of the world's websites and an increasing share of organization's mission-critical workloads running on Linux, failing to stop malware and other advanced threats on Linux can increasingly impact an organization's reputation and bottom line.

Learn More

Sponsored by Bit9

Webinar
Linux Backup and Recovery Webinar

Most companies incorporate backup procedures for critical data, which can be restored quickly if a loss occurs. However, fewer companies are prepared for catastrophic system failures, in which they lose all data, the entire operating system, applications, settings, patches and more, reducing their system(s) to “bare metal.” After all, before data can be restored to a system, there must be a system to restore it to.

In this one hour webinar, learn how to enhance your existing backup strategies for better disaster recovery preparedness using Storix System Backup Administrator (SBAdmin), a highly flexible bare-metal recovery solution for UNIX and Linux systems.

Learn More

Sponsored by Storix