This question was raised to me recently, and comes up frequently. It’s complicated by the fact that the word ‘open’ means many things to many people, but there are threads of commonality through all of the varying definitions. So the question is: “Why is openness useful to the public sector?” There are many answers to this, but here I’d like to concentrate on one that is perhaps less frequently cited.
In 2003, early in OSS Watch’s history, Sebastian Rahtz and Stuart Yeates drafted a policy on open source software for our funders the JISC, beginning it during a long train journey to an event. JISC had been receiving questions from the community about its attitude to open source, which was becoming a something of a hot topic. I had joined OSS Watch at its inception, having worked in other externally funded projects here in Oxford before that. One thing that had become clear quickly was that intellectual property rights were often an afterthought among projects, and that particularly where project work involved collaboration between institutions, failing to sort out those rights early could result in hair-tearing complications by project end. Where the problem was not solved, project outputs could remain undistributed, and the public money invested in them locked away. Of course JISC was even more aware of this than any individual institution. Thus the open source policy served the dual purposes of spelling out the benefits of open licensing of resources and introducing the idea that intellectual property rights needed to be dealt with early in a project’s lifecycle.
The policy introduced a presumption that software developed with JISC resources would be open source. While this might seem like a value judgement about openness, the fact that projects could make an argument against openness where they felt it would be detrimental was another key component. In practice projects could take either approach, but what they could not do was ignore the issue. The openness presumption provided a default exploitation model that would allow maximum reusability of the publicly funded resources. If the project’s host institution felt that a different llicensing model would suit the work better, then that option was open to them. All they needed to do was to justify it.
So one use of openness for publicly funded works is – I would argue – to stimulate creative thinking about exploitation. If the default assumption is that the intellectual property will be ‘in the cupboard’ and ready for exploitation when we get around to it, it is all too easy to postpone the decision. Operational complications can then mean it is forgotten altogether. If we begin with a default policy of openness, we know that this cannot happen, and the option to draft variant exploitation models means that we do not limit anyone’s creative thinking.
JISC were ahead of the curve in identifying the root problem here and implementing the policy to deal with it. As we have worked with other public funders over the years it has been extremely useful to point to the policy and the thinking behind it.