Why Governments Should Use Open Source Licensing

Here's a wonderful cautionary tale: Systran created a specially adapted version of its Systran-Unix machine translation software for the [European] Commission, calling it EC-Systran Unix between 1997 and 2002. In 2003 the Commission published a...

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Here's a wonderful cautionary tale:

Systran created a specially adapted version of its Systran-Unix machine translation software for the [European] Commission, calling it EC-Systran Unix between 1997 and 2002.

In 2003 the Commission published a call for tenders for work updating its machine translation systems. That call included demands that a company conduct "enhancements, adaptations and additions to linguistic routines … specific improvements to analysis, transfer and synthesis programs ... [and] system updates", according to a statement from the General Court.

Systran told the Commission that the work the Commission was asking for tenders for would infringe the copyright in Systran's software.

And the court agreed:

The Court awarded Systran ‚¬7m for the fees which it said Systran would have charged for permission to use its intellectual property between 2004 and 2007. It awarded a further ‚¬5m for the effect that the Commission's decision had on Systran's turnover.

Now consider what would have happened in this situation had the EC insisted that the software it had paid for were released as open source: nothing. It would have been completely free to commission further work on the system. Moreover, others would have been free to do the same, and so the system might have already been extended in interesting and powerful new directions that made it better even before further work was done. Indeed, the amount of work needed might well have been less as a result.

In other words, from just about every point of view, open source would have been a better solution for the European Commission. And yet I am sure that many major projects currently being built or bid for are still closed source; which means that it is likely that the EC – and hence us – will have to make payments of the kind described above. Isn't it time that the EC put a stop to this waste, and insisted – as the paymaster – on an open source licence for all work it commissions?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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