Open source in the government and military isn't a new thing; governance is one of open source's biggest target markets, so to speak. It's still all the more heartening to hear the Department of Defense come out strongly in favor of open source, and to recommend using more of it whenever possible.
The recommendation comes in the form of a memorandum (PDF) issued back on October 16th by David M. Wennergren, deputy CIO for the DoD. Wennergren notes that the "positive aspects of OSS [open source software]" should be considered when performing research for its use in the DoD. Among the positive traits: publicly-auditable code, the possibility unrestricted modification, minimal reliance on any one vendor or developer, no restriction on the nature of the use, no licensing costs -- in short, all of the things that open source lovers have been saying for years now.
Another key point in the memo had me nodding my head:
There is a misconception that the Government is always obligated to distribute the source code of any modified OSS to the public, and therefore that OSS should not be integrated or modified for use in classified or other sensitive DoD systems. In contrast, many open source licenses permit the user to modify OSS for internal use without being obligated to distribute source code to the public.
Completely correct -- and in fact, this is something I hear about constantly when it comes to an organization (a government, a company) evaluating open source. People constantly get the wrong ideas about when you need to redistribute modified open source, and when you can use and modify the software freely. This confusion doesn't just erupt in government or business alone; it's endemic.
I have to wonder why this still happens. I'd be willing to blame end users for not doing the needed research, but I'm not positive the folks who draft OSS licensing do a good enough job of explaining what you are and are not free to do. Most of them tend to wind up hearing first about the GPL whenever it's invoked in legal action.
The folks at Open Source for America, a group that advocates the broad use of open source in governance, were also happy that the DoD were picking up on what's right about open source. David Thomas, OSFA spokesman: "We're pleased that the DoD clarified misconceptions and used the memo to highlight the many advantages open source offers the government... We hope to see other agencies across the federal government release this type of guidance." Signs of that are already happening -- the Whitehouse.gov site is now using the open source Drupal for its CMS, bringing it in line with a number of other government divisions making use of the same stack.
So here's hoping the accelerated use of open source in defense work translates into a smarter and more agile armed forces -- and better government for everyone in the long run.
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