Ted misses the point on the open letter to President Obama

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cfarrell's picture

I recently read an article by Ted Dziuba in which he comments on an open letter written by the heads of well-known open source software companies to President Obama, in which they argue that the license of government procured software should be considered, when deciding on who gets the contract. Ted suggested that President Obama has many items on his agenda which have a far higher priority than the license of government procured software and that thus, the open letter was a “waste... of the president's time”. While Ted's assertion about the ranking of the licensing issue certainly cannot be considered immaterial, he completely misses the point, not just of the open letter, but also of the nature of Free and Open Source Software, and of the change governance that President Obama encourages.

Whereas Ted acknowledges that it may be “reasonable” for the government to make consideration of the source of software a criteria in choosing inbound software for government use, he believes that in practice, the nature of US government employees is such that deviation from the norm is factually impossible: “If you take two parts pathological aversion to risk, mix it together with one part apathy and a jigger of laziness, what you get is the government workforce culture.” Not only is this statement generalised, vague and insulting, it also fails to attribute even nominal value to the desire for change which President Obama promoted during his candidacy. Unreasonable failure to believe or even consider the chances of success for change display the kind of apathy of which, according to Ted, US government employees are normally guilty.

Without going into too much detail about the idealogical differences between open source and free software, the goals of proponents of free software are independent of commercial gain – whereby commercial gain is not shunned – it is simply a side issue. The main issue is enabling people to help themselves and to help others. In the case of free software, this is done by ensuring that software stays free from proprietary 'lock-up', by licensing it appropriately. This maximises society's gain from such software. Open source is a software development process, which focusses not on the philanthropic goal of bettering society through software, but more on the technical advantages of an open software development process - “show us your code and we'll help you fix bugs”. The open letter to President Obama is written from the perspective of vendors of open source software. The key interest of this group of people is that software which is used by a publicly financed government should have its usage restrictions considered in order to provide the best possible purchase for the american peoples' money. Add to this the above referenced goals of free software and you have a potent case for really considering the license of the software as part of the contract award process. Despite Ted's stating that “[i]f open source is going to make any real headway in the government, there needs to be an incentive to choose it, not a rule”, it should be common sense that the rights and obligations created by the license by reviewed – irrespective of the source of the software.

Ted, the open letter to President Obama was not meant as a sales pitch to the Obama administration – it was not an advertising stunt from the open source vendors. The point of the open letter was to point out that in order to derive maximum benefit from public acquisition of software, the public body procuring the software should inspect the accompanying terms in order to determine which offer represents the best value for money for the people financing the purchase – namely the taxpayers

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The Open Source Definition

ernest.park's picture

Different point of view


WHile I believe strongly in the ideals that FOSS professes, and I agree with the points made in your post, I also find fault in the lack of sincere support for FOSS in the letter to the president. An effort to "encourage" the consideration of FOSS because it is a cost savings measure, and encouraged only by large vendors who charge large fees for their implementation and support services related to FOSS? The letter was a marketing effort, some sales PR to back existing lobbying to potentially force the hand of the government to consider FOSS, and potentially be required to use it. 


Why does FOSS need affirmative action? The US government in practice have been long time supporters and users of FOSS.

THe government has been active in supporting FOSS, and is recently a very vigourous participant in the use of FOSS as a best of breed solution strategy. 

We don't want to force our government to use FOSS because it is cheap, and because they have to. We want them to find it, and make the logical choice, like they have, that FOSS provides a new opportunity to get innovative and competitive solutions from non-standard sources. It allows our government to break single vendor lock-in.


What scares me is that the government made the choice by themselves to start using FOSS, and then we will allow policy to shove it down their throat, and in doing so, they will surrender any license savings to a service provider, and will get stuck in long term support contracts, thereby getting back into a locked situation.

Government supported FOSS may be a trojan horse. It allows them to set terms, create rules and requirements, and define how our formerly free software is created, at which time it ceases to be free.

Let's keep our distance from the government. Notice that the letter to Pres. Obama comes from commercial entities who financially benefit from a positive response to the letter. It is not a note from FOSSBazaar, from users, from contributors, from developers who don't care if Pres. Obama uses FOSS or not, but don't want to be excluded from consideration.

For those concerned, FOSS is always considered by the government in all places that it can be used, and has been for years.