Prepend
2009-06-04
  Closed-Open Source
I've noticed a growing trend with government projects claiming to be open source but then restricting access to source code and binaries. The US government is in an interesting space because technically all of the source code it produces is in the public domain. Of course, being FOIAable and actually running software in a transparent, open, collaborative manner are two different things.

The fact that the US government is moving toward open source is a good thing, but a few sites are troubling me. For example, ForgeMil, the DoD installation of sourceforge, but access "requires a valid DoD Common Access Card (CAC) or a PKI certificate issues by a DoD approved External Certificate Authority (ECA)." This doesn't sound very open to me. Why place these restrictions on viewing "open source" source.

Also, there's CONNECT, the "open source software gateway that connects an organization's Heath IT systems to the Nationwide Health Information Network." It is excellent, that the new administration (and the previous administration) are developing open standards for HeathIT but why should CONNECT force you to register and be approved before you can view their source code.

I think projects really need to review the Open Source Definition before they jump on the open source bandwagon. There are many shining examples of open source projects within the US governemnt (caBIG, Epi-Info, SELinux).

Open source in government projects allows collaboration across federal, state and local levels and also allows for immediate use by third world nations. But if it is open source in name only, not in practice this removes a lot of the value that transparency provides.

Update 2009.7.14: As of NHIN CONNECT's 2.1 release on July 7th, you can now download the source code without registering as a giant zip. This is an improvement, but I still can't view the code repository without registering.

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Comments:
WRT Forge.mil only some of their software projects are truly “open source”. Most of the software is what they call DoD community source. Government software is only public domain when developed by government employees and not governed by FOIA exemptions. Most of the government software is acquired from commercial developers rather than written in house. When developed by a contractor the government obtains usage rights but doesn’t own the software or its IP –thus the government can not licenses or release the software. Forge.mil allows for distribution and collaborative development of such software in accordance with the government purpose rights (GPR) as defined in the US Federal Acquisition Regulation. GPR allows for distribution within the government and use for official government purposes. Forge.mil doesn’t preclude open source projects from using the capability, but they do encourage pure open source efforts to leverage public communities such as SourceForge.net.
 
Excellent clarification. Thank you for your comment. You're right that most software for "the government" is written by contractors. The government specifies copyright within specific contracts and is not required to only use GPR. The contract could stipulate a copyleft or creative commons copyright and there is even precident to assign copyright to the governemtn agency (NASA FAR suppliment 1852.227-14). So why not stipulate in the contract that the newly created code be released under an open source license? Most government software systems written by contractors are not re-used elsewhere so really the government has the option of making the licensing a requirement (security concerns notwithstanding). This doesn't seem like an issue of protecting IP.

While Forge.mil does contain non-OSS projects, there is no way for anyone to view the OSS-projects without a DoD-approved cert. So my complaint stands. If there are OSS projects, why not let people see them?
 
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