The White House Gets Open Source

Encouraging large enterprises to participate and contribute in open source projects is the next frontier for open source communities.   There are lots of examples of companies being happy users of open source technology but sadly very few examples of companies contributing back to those same open source communities.   This is why I was happy to see the White House, that uses Drupal for their whitehouse.gov site is now contributing back to Drupal.   Imagine if every US Government department starting contributing back to the open source projects they use?  It is great to see the White House showing leadership in open source participation!

3 Responses to The White House Gets Open Source

  1. Miles Parker says:

    One nice — and probably little known — aspect of US Law is that any works by government employees are automatically public domain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_of_the_United_States_Government. Not “Open Source” , but “Public Domain”, which means that they can’t be copyrighted!

    My mind twists when I try to think about the odd interactions that might have with open source licenses. For example, could GPL licensed code include code produced by the US government given that that included code can’t actually be constrained? I’m sure that there is a discussion out there somewhere about this, but I’m too lazy to look for it…

  2. Ian Skerrett says:

    Miles,

    I am not expect but a good example of the US Gov’t public domain code is the Vista system from the VA Hospital. I believe it can be relicensed under any license and has been GPL and even EPL.

    Btw, not to state the obvious but just saying something is in the public domain is a long way from open source participation.

  3. Miles Parker says:

    Ian,

    Knowing the sometimes insanity of GPL licensing implications I just had to look it up. And I think that my hunch about this might have some wings:

    http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#GPLUSGov

    “Can the US Government release a program under the GNU GPL?
    If the program is written by US federal government employees in the course of their employment, it is in the public domain, which means it is not copyrighted. Since the GNU GPL is based on copyright, such a program cannot be released under the GNU GPL. (It can still be free software, however; a public domain program is free.)

    However, when a US federal government agency uses contractors to develop software, that is a different situation. The contract can require the contractor to release it under the GNU GPL. (GNU Ada was developed in this way.) Or the contract can assign the copyright to the government agency, which can then release the software under the GNU GPL.

    Can the US Government release improvements to a GPL-covered program?
    Yes. If the improvements are written by US government employees in the course of their employment, then the improvements are in the public domain. However, the improved version, as a whole, is still covered by the GNU GPL. There is no problem in this situation.”

    So my read in say the VA situation is that it was probably contracted. And contributions to an existing project are covered. But say White House staff wrote their own web portal (not likely) that could not be released under GPL == interesting.

    Certainly it is true that more and more government agencies are actually *requiring* that contractors provide the code under open source — a very good thing IMO.

    But yes, Public Domain is a long way from Open Source.

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