What Obama can do for and to Open source, practically

I dont want this answer “nothing”.

I sought to ask what the new Administration’s policy may be toward open source. What resulted was a lively discussion of the President’s politics and positions.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The economy, the reputation of the nation, and the strength of its tech sector all impact open source. Any President has power in all those areas.

But what I sought to elicit was a discussion of the specific policies he may have toward open source. It’s possible many commenters did not think it matters much. It does.

There is much this President can do for, and to, the open source movement.

  1. Will he buy it? Any enterprise which fully implements open source winds up hiring programmers who contribute, in turn, to open source projects. Some contribute code, others their expertise, and the code base they develop becomes available to the community, and to businesses around the world. So how much open source the Administration uses matters.
  2. What license will he support? The Veteran Administration’s VistA system predates the open source movement and was built as public record. Some projects evolved from that, like WorldVistA, use the GPL. A commercial implementation, Medsphere, uses the AGPL. If the government used Eclipse or other BSD-type licenses, companies could extend it for their own commercial benefit. Given the potential size of a government code base, that’s meaningful.
  3. What about copyright? FOSS advocates, especially those at the Free Software Foundation, feel the government’s attitude toward copyright is important. Turning the Constitution’s copyright into a property right, they argue, could have a substantial chilling effect on open source. And the over-zealous enforcement of copyright, through DRM schemes, can also have a chilling effect.
  4. Internet Policy. All open source business models ride on the Internet. Will America’s Internet highways remain wide and affordable? How will this Administration seek to enforce American laws in cyberspace? Will it support changes to the Internet architecture meant to enforce local laws — all national laws are local laws.

It’s likely I missed some important issue in the list above. Please feel free to bring it up in the comments.

What I attempted to point out last week is that the President’s policy in these areas remains unformed. But there have been recent hints in both directions. Many cheered the appointment of Julius Genachowski as FCC chair. The same people booed the appointment of Mignon Clyburn to another FCC seat.

Similarly FOSS advocates charge that the Administration’s close ties with the RIAA and MPAA threaten open source by extending copyrights forever, by seeking to make copyright payments universal for everything, and by creating a coercive enforcement regime.

We don’t yet know where the broadband money in the stimulus will go. Will it go into the pocket of incumbents and be wasted, as happened to the old Gore tax? Or will we get new wireless superhighways in rural towns, and new unlicensed frequencies for WiFi and WiMAX?

Regardless of how the President and his appointees choose to come down on these questions, they will all have a powerful impact on the development of open source, or lack of it, over the next years.

What should the Administration be doing to enhance or degrade open source? What will he do? Can we expect something more practical this time?

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