I have just got back from this event organised by the European Commission and the European Patent Office to discuss the implications of implementing open standards in open source. Now of course this is an issue that has been very active in the UK recently, and about which we have blogged, due to the present government’s desire to use open standards as a way of increasing efficiency in government IT procurement. The idea, briefly, is that specifying IT systems in smaller, interoperable chunks that implement open standards should make government IT easier to manage and maintain and more able to be supplied by a wider range of bidders, including authors and integrators of free and open source software. As discussed in the blog linked above, there is an issue with implementing royalty-bearing standards in GPL-licensed software, and as a lot of the free and open source software out there is GPL-licensed, government risks locking this software out if they don’t specify standards that are royalty free.
Well, after a long consultation process, the Cabinet Office has decided that it will indeed make it a principle that government IT should implement interoperability standards that are royalty free:
1. We place the needs of our users at the heart of our standards choices
2. Our selected open standards will enable suppliers to compete on a level playing field
3. Our standards choices support flexibility and change
4. We adopt open standards that support sustainable cost
5. Our decisions on standards selection are well informed
6. We select open standards using fair and transparent processes
7. We are fair and transparent in the specification and implementation of open standards
Rights – rights essential to implementation of the standard, and for interfacing with other implementations which have adopted that same standard, are licensed on a royalty free basis that is compatible with both open source and proprietary licensed
solutions. These rights should be irrevocable unless there is a breach of licence conditions.
This is a bold step, and has been welcomed throughout the free and open source software community. It is also likely to peeve advocates of royalty-bearing FRAND standards (if this terminology is confusing you I would suggest reading the previous blog post linked above). At the event in Brussels, which was held under the Chatham House Rule, it was clear to me that the UK decision had come as a surprise to many attendees. One attendee asked why it was necessary to make allowances for a single licence, while another wondered why the licensing practices of the majority of standards defining bodies were somehow not acceptable. Other attendees welcomed the decision and pointed out that although in general royalty-bearing FRAND was a common phenomenon, in the area that the policy specifically addressed – software interoperability – it was far more rare, and that this perhaps reflected the differing business models and motivations that tended to operate in the software and ICT spaces. OSS Watch will be publishing a briefing note on FRAND and open source, so watch this space if this this is an area that interests you.