Government Wants Open Standards To Be Royalty-Free

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Francis Maude has confirmed that it will adopt royalty-free standards, to deliver a level playing field for open source

Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, has clarified the government’s policy on seeking open standards when procuring IT equipment, following confusion over whether “open standards” means Royalty-Free (RF) or Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND).

Technologies available under RF conditions, can be used freely, while those under FRAND terms require users to pay a “reasonable” royalty. The HTTP protocol is free, for instance, while technologies for 3G communications are FRAND.

The distinction is important, because it is difficult for the open source community to implement technologies available under FRAND; the FRAND terms require a licence to be paid, while the open source licence requires source code to be distributed freely.

So if the government is serious about creating a level playing field for open source software, it needs to specify that software should be available RF. Indeed, in its procurement policy note, dated 31 January 2011, the government stated that open standards were defined as those which have “intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis”.

However, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said in May that its open standards policy was “not set in stone” and that the UK definition of an open standard was up for consultation – throwing the whole issue once again into confusion.

Government supports RF standards

Last week, a written response to a question from Conservative MP Mike Weatherley, published on Hansard, helped to throw light on the issue.

Maude (pictured) stated that: “FRAND specifications may present some difficulties for the open source software development model in terms of patents and royalties. To deliver a level playing field for both open source and proprietary software, open standards are needed.”

Maude’s response seems to indicate that the UK government recognises that open standards should be RF, and confirms its commitment to open source technology. In a further exchange between the two MPs, Maude added that “open source solutions present significant opportunities for improved value for money and the stimulation of a more competitive ICT environment.”

Open source experts have welcomed the response. “I hesitate to claim this as a victory for good sense, given the twists and turns of the previous year, but it does seem promising,” said blogger Glyn Moody. “Assuming that we don’t see another U-turn, it is also impressive that a UK Minister can respond to a Parliamentary question with this level of technical savviness: kudos to him and his advisers.”

Maude reiterated the need for cost savings, qualifying his statement by saying that open source would be encouraged where cost is “equal to, or less than, the lifetime costs of proprietary software”.

Open source commitment

The government claimed in its ICT cost-cutting strategy in March that it could save millions of pounds worth of public money through encouraging small business innovation and embracing open source technologies.

Francis Maude admitted at the time that  the government had wasted vast amounts of money on ineffective and duplicate IT systems, and promised to “end the oligopoly of big business supplying government IT by breaking down contracts into smaller, more flexible projects”.

However, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the BBC last week revealed that most government departments still spend the lion’s share of their IT budgets on software from big-name vendors, such as Microsoft and Oracle, rather than seeking cheaper open source alternatives.

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