Government and open source: Public interest

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This week I’m going to pose a series of questions in the hope of driving some discussion around the use of open source in government, as well as government involvement in open source.

  • (General warm-up question) In what ways is it in the public’s interest for a government to make the intellectual property it develops available to its citizens?
  • In the case of software, does exclusive patent licensing by a government patent holder have any advantages or disadvantages to the public interest compared with making it available for open source implementations?
  • Does a government allowing open source implementations of its software intellectual property foster potential security problems?
  • Does a government allowing open source implementations of its software intellectual property dilute any potential innovation and economic advantages to its citizens?

Previous: Government and open source: Research projects


  1. Bob

    There is an obvious mini-case-study here in the challenge of the valuation of impaired assets for the TARP/TALF programmes in the US & the variants in the EU member states.

    Whatever happens it will be the governments who define the valuation algorithms which will be the final pricing of these assets. The governments are now the ‘counterparty of last resort’ so they have the final say now on ‘fair Value’; in effect. The algorithims which compute fair value, used by the government will themsleves probably be variants of those developed by academic institutions (or central banks)and published in the ‘academic’ public domain. So to your questions;-

    1. It is in the public interest that these valuation algorithims and even possibly the software which implements them to be in the public domain, arguably its one of the most important aspects of public stewardship of the 21st Century.

    2. Exclusive patent right in this context by the governments (both US and EU) would be of extreme detriment in my view to the citizens since if the government develops the correct alogorithms for valuation why should they not be available to the banks so that they do it properly going forward. That is so important to the future welfare of all citizens in my view.

    3. I don’t see that issue in this case. I suppose the argument could be made in a sort of game theory framework that the government would allways want to keep the ‘super-clever’ algorithim but then a 2nd-best solution developed by a government and placed in the public domain for the banks to use would be progress from where we are today.

    4. Quite the reverse in this case if the US Fed or Treasury or EU or ECB invents an algorithim which properly analyses risk and quantifies risk capital and risk exposure, sharing that IP into the banking system would foster innovation in that macro-prudential process which was sadly lacking prior to this credit crisis.

    I hope this is useful input

    John A Morrison

  2. Consider this non-software example from the construction industry with a far longer baseline than the software industry.

    Mud brick construction is an open source analog. Techniques for making them are easily accessible to everyone. However the quality of such bricks is highly variable. The only way to trust them is to test each building individually, since brick quality depends entirely on the skill of the individuals involved in building them. We see this in software as the cost and difficulty of putting each and every web application through security C&A processes.

    The construction industry ultimately evolved to a real brick architecture. This is still largely an open source analog in that how to make real bricks is still mostly accessible to everyone, as are the raw ingredients from and similar. And paradoxically, (most) everyone today chooses to use real bricks because they are trusted, even though mud bricks are just as accessible to everyone as before and most of all, are “free”.

    The point of this parable is the role government might play in the two cases. Seems to me that whether govt should or shouldn’t use (or even contribute) to mud brick (open source) industries isn’t nearly as interesting as roles it might play in advancing everyone to a level real brick playing field.

    Government is actually ideally suited to taking a leading role. It already has deep experience in certifying and authorizing (C&A) secure systems and has developed an (arguably too) elaborate infrastructure to developing trust in unknown systems.

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