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Popular technology Web site Mashable took a break from rewriting press releases and just published one directly from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom touting the announcement of a new mandate for city agencies to evaluate free, open source alternatives to commercial software.

In exchange, Mashable didn’t just get the “scoop” but also a link from Newsom’s on Twitter. Sucks for TechCrunch, Newsom’s old go-to PR broadcaster for tech-related announcements.

But I digress. It’s all part of the “Open SF” initiative that has also included making publicly available data from a limited number of city agencies, enabling applications like MomMaps (which is surprisingly gendered a name for San Francisco — kind of an insult to mayoral candidate and father Bevan Dufty) which uses city survey data to locate parks and other kid-friendly facilities on iPhones. Great for parents who can both afford to raise kids in San Francisco and own an iPhone!

It’s a little troubling to see the city defining open source software by explaining “the underlying source code is not copyrighted.” That’s not actually the case.It’s a good idea to evaluate open source alternatives for things like databases, Web applications and operating systems. It can save the city money, and at least in theory (and with the right expertise) it would mean that city agencies could customize software to better meet their own needs rather than relying on a corporate vendor, and with other government agencies participate in the general development of open source software.

However, as part of the Committee on Information Technology’s new Software Evaluation Policy’s “total cost of ownership” calculations it might often mean that open source software will be passed up because part of that cost will include training but exclude less quantifiable external benefits.

For instance, while being able to send updates to the 311 service from Twitter doesn’t cost the city directly in dollars, paying for direct SMS service would enable San Franciscans who don’t have or want a Twitter account to contact 311 via text message, and when Twitter goes down (as it recently did, and tends to do under heavy use) so goes that service.

Also, City information technology employees already trained in using solutions from companies like Microsoft will probably continue to prefer closed source software. Plus, COIT is only required to evaluate open source when the software purchase is estimated to cost over $100,000, so in effect it only counts toward things like system-wide upgrades and new initiatives and not day-to-day software purchases by individuals and agencies — such as small batch purchases of new laptop and desktop computers which are likely as not to continue running Microsoft Windows and not, say, Ubuntu Linux.

What it also doesn’t address is open document formats. Documents coming from City Hall have a nasty habit of being in Adobe Acrobat PDF or (shudder) Microsoft Word DOC format — not as plain text files or OpenDocument Format, which is now required of the Federal Government under the Open Government Directive from President Barack Obama.

While open source alternatives to Microsoft Office and Acrobat exist (such as OpenOffice and Sumatra PDF Viewer, respectively) not using open formats still puts a proprietary code and licensing layer over much city data.

Finally, it’s a little troubling to see the city defining open source software by explaining “the underlying source code is not copyrighted.” That’s not actually the case. While individual applications and small batches of code may be in the public domain, the Free Software Foundation owns the copyright to many applications released under the General Public License in order to better protect the code from copyright claims. By default, developers of code own the copyright to the code. They may make the source available to others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the code is in the public domain.

A technicality, sure, but the mistake does not speak to a nuanced understanding of the issue*. And it’s that nuanced understanding that COIT will need when evaluating the true costs and benefits of open source solutions compared to proprietary ones.

So what does it mean for San Franciscans? Not much, yet. It will probably be a few years before the city realizes significant savings, much less improved efficiency and interoperability. And for open source developers in San Francisco, it will probably be a long time before city IT employees (or citizens) are enabled or empowered to contribute to the codebase of open source software on city time or for the city’s benefit. But hey, the taxpayer-funded Web site built for Newsom is apparently powered by open source solutions, so there’s that.

Clarification: Reader Xenu points out in the comments that the FSF copyright transfer is only for code contributions, while the codebase remains the intellectual property of the creator.

Photo by Flickr user svonog. Would have used one from Newsom’s Flickr account, but they aren’t published under the Creative Commons license, and not knowing if the photographer is on the city’s payroll, it’s not clear if they are in the public domain.

Jackson West loves how Newsom mentioned mayoral appointee CIO Chris Vein in the Mashable post, but not Board President David Chiu, who also presented the new policy.

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  • Xenu

    “the Free Software Foundation owns the copyright to many applications released under the General Public License”

    Um, NO. Read the link you supplied more carefully.

    The FSF owns the copyright to *contributions* people make to code owned by the FSF.

    That does NOT mean that if I write a program under a GPL license that FSF owns the copyright. I still own the copyright because my program was created by me; it’s not a “contribution” to an existing program owned by someone else.

  • Jackson West

    Thanks, Xenu, I added a note of clarification.

  • Xenu

    That’s a little better, but still not quite right. The article confuses the term “open source” with GPL. Open source refers to a fairly large category of licenses, not just the GPL family of licenses.

    For example, Mac OS X is built on top of an open source operating system developed by Berkeley called BSD, which uses its own license. That license is considered an open source license because the source is given away freely.

    There’s many other licenses out there that can be considered open source, such as the Mozilla license, the Apache license, the MIT license, etc. All these licenses are fairly different. The unfortunate thing about all this is you basically need a law degree to program a computer these days.

  • Jackson West

    Agreed, but in this context I referenced the GPL as the most widely-known of the licenses less relatively restrictive than the license agreements provided by corporate, proprietary, closed source software providers. It’s still the standard. That the city’s open source software review guidelines don’t specify these terms is the basic issue I was trying to address. Just as I don’t confuse open source with “public domain” as the city apparently has.

    I would say that you don’t need a law degree to program a computer, but it certainly helps to have lawyers available if you ever care to distribute your code, especially in a commercial context.