Government support of open source falls short

American and European governments are hailing open source innovation, but failing to act aggressively on patent reform

Two news items over the last week signalled to me that the benefits of open source, open data, and other artifacts of the meshed Internet society are making it through to policy makers. A new section of the White House website and a speech by a European Commission political prove that progress is under way. But when it comes to legal support, both stop short of advocating real open innovation.

Open source spans the Atlantic
Last week, the White House launched an unusual website that offers a glimpse of the Administration's thinking about IT. The White House Developer Page (captioned "Connecting citizen developers with the tools they need to unlock government data") provides a catalog of resources available to software developers to be able to manipulate data about the workings of government. With sections on open government, open data, and open source, it's clear that the benefits of empowering citizen-creator-consumers appeal to the Obama administration.

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The section on open source is especially interesting. The White House has opened up the source code to the Petitions website and to the mobile apps for Android and iPhone, all at GitHub. As a sophisticated user of the Drupal open source content management system, the White House has contributed several improvements it created for Drupal back to the project, including useful modules to support Akamai for content distribution and to implement free-standing link shorteners. They say:

We believe in using and contributing back to open source software as a way of making it easier for the government to share data, improve tools and services, and return value to taxpayers.

Meanwhile, I attended a conference in Brussels at which Neelie Kroes, a senior vice president of the European Commission, announced her plans to earmark 5 percent -- maybe more -- of the Commission's budget for open and innovative solutions from small and medium-size businesses while also seeking ways to stimulate more open innovation. As if anticipating her move, the French government signalled plans to promote open source adoption and allocate the money saved on licenses for investment in open technology.

Kroes has a record of intelligent advocacy of open solutions, especially open standards, and was the Commissioner responsible for sanctioning Microsoft following its antitrust conviction in Europe. This is not the first time Kroes has been an advocate of open source, and her stance has previously been rewarded with a cabinet portfolio in the European Commission with responsibility for Europe's digital agenda.

These moves on both sides of the Atlantic reflect a maturing understanding of the importance of open source and open innovation. The most important aspect of open source -- as well as open data, open hardware, and open access to research -- is not to save money, but rather to empower innovation by removing the need to ask permission to build on the innovations and discoveries of others. When this happens, innovators gain a new flexibility and a new power. Open source provides the steps making it easy to climb on the shoulders of giants.

Permission still required
These steps toward openness won't be enough, though. The liberating effect of not needing to ask for permission to innovate also explains why the lumbering, out-of-date patent system is such an obstacle to open innovation.

By allowing patent holders to reach into other people's innovation and claim a share of their work on the basis of no more than independently occurring similarity, the need for "permission to innovate" is reintroduced. It's also the reason why open software standards -- especially for interfaces -- cannot be allowed to contain patents on any terms that require a relationship with others in order to implement the standard.

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