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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

UK Gets Open Definitions Right

Government procurements now prefer open standards - and that means no patent restrictions in the standards.

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After a long and fractious consultation process that included the ugly sight of certain vendors interfering in the process, the UK government finally published its Open Standards Principles today. From tomorrow, all government software procurement must conform to these principles or face direct scrutiny by the Cabinet Office. Notably, these Principles express a strong preference for open standards in new solutions, attempt to freeze the ongoing influence of legacy purchases to stop them promoting lock-in, and identifies open source solutions as a key element of future thinking. Full details are on the Cabinet Office web site.

As a participant in the process, I was keen to check two things; the definitions of "open standards" and of "open source". Both have been handled well by the Cabinet Office. The definition of "open source" is achieved by reference to the Open Source Initiative license list, rather than by attempting to craft new words. This simple action means that the globally-accepted Open Source Definition used as the arbiter of licenses in that list becomes the standard for the UK government.

The story for defining "open standards" has been very interesting. Realising that they could not escape a mandate for open standards in future procurement, the incumbent vendors used the consultation process to try to warp the definition of "open standards" so that it would allow them to implement "fauxpen standards" - software interoperability standards containing elements that may not be freely implemented without asking permission of a rights-holder. 

A good deal of controversy arose from this single point, with one of the consultation meetings being voided because of the influence of a vendor pursuing this broken definition. Indeed, similar pressure at a European level was successful in poisoning the EIF. As I pointed out here and in one of the consultation meetings, that patent-encumbered definition is simply not the norm for software, even if it is widely used in other markets such as mobile telephony.

The language the government has used in the definition on this point is exemplary. An open standard is defined as one where:

"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."

Notably, that definition does not refer to "royalties" but to "rights" and makes clear that the real issue in the debate is not about money; it's about control. Standards that can only be implemented after asking the permission of a rights holder are not "open standards" to the UK government. That seemingly small detail is an enormous boost for the modern software market.

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