How to let the cat out of the bag

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A quick guide to managing open-source licenses

So you've developed a program at your agency and now you want to let it loose for the public to play with and improve. After a check with your agency's lawyers, you may want to consider an open-source license. A license stipulates what an end user can do with your software.

One of the duties of the nonprofit Open Source Initiative is to certify licenses that adequately define how open-source software can be distributed. Though the organization has approved dozens of licenses, it now recommends only a few, said Eric Raymond, founder of OSI. A full list of OSI-certified licenses can be found at Raymond recommends these three:

The GNU General Public License: The GNU GPL is the granddaddy of open-source licenses'the one Lin- ux falls under. GPL allows users to share and change free software. The caveat with GNU GPL is that if GPL software has been altered, the source code for those changes must be made available. This stipulation can be tricky for agencies. An agency can modify an open-source program and, as long as it is only used internally, does not have to disclose the source code. If it offers the program to the public, however, that source code must be released.

One industry observer noted that the GNU GPL may not be of value to agencies, because the government cannot pursue copyright infractions against U.S. citizens. Theoretically, an end user could refuse to disclose changes to a modified government program without repercussions, thereby depriving the agency of a prime benefit of open-sourcing an application.

The GNU Lesser General Public License: The LGPL was designed with software programming libraries in mind. Unlike the GPL, this license allows developers to use open-source libraries without having to open up the source code of their programs, which may use the libraries. For example, an Energy Department lab might release a library of routines for numerical computations of explosions. This would allow commercial developers to embed that library within their own commercial software without revealing the code of that software, Raymond said.

The Berkeley Software Distribution license: The BSD license is a lot more liberal than the GPL. It does not require anyone using the li-censed software to release copies of their changes. 'It basically says 'Do anything you want with this program,' ' Raymond said. Using this li- cense, an agency may not be able to look at how others have changed or improved their programs.

In addition to those three licenses, OSI has also certified the NASA Open Source Agreement. Last year, NASA worked with OSI to write an open-source license under which it could release its own internal programs. This license includes NASA-specific provisions such as indemnification against any subsequent use or misuse of the software. It also requests users to register with NASA any changes made to the program itself. Industry observers note that this license could work well as a template for other agencies.

If none of these options work, agencies could release software under public domain. The Army Corps of Engineers' Geographic Resource Analysis System and the Veterans Affairs Department's Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture are two examples of widely used government programs in the public domain, noted former OSI president Russell Nelson.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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