Should the U.S. Army Have Its Own Open Source License?

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by | March 13, 2017

Should the U.S. armed forces begin releasing software under an OSI approved open source license rather than as public domain?

This question has generated many pixels’ worth of traffic on the OSI License discuss email list. This post is just a brief summary of a little of the discussion, which has been going on for some weeks and shows no sign of slowing down.

There are currently 80 Open Sourse Initiative-approved open source licenses. It’s nice that the Army (I’m a veteran) wants to not only write software licensed as open source, but OSI-approved open source software. (Go Army!)

But does the Army really need its own special OS license? Should the Air Force have a different one? Will the Navy want a Coastal Combat Open Source License, along with a separate Blue Water Open Source License? That might sound far-fetched, but Mozilla has three separate open source licenses, Microsoft has two, and Canada’s province of Québec also has three. So why shouldn’t the U.S. Department of Defense have a whole slew of open source licenses?

There are five different GPL licenses alone, and I assure you that even the Coast Guard dwarfs the Free Software Foundation in both personnel and resources.

Before we all start laughing uncontrollably, let’s look at a serious consideration:

Most software written by U.S. government agencies is released (if, indeed, it is released at all) under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, which mundanes usually call “public domain.” Except it’s not that simple. What about liability? What if, for example, you got your hands on public domain plans for a fusion reaction explosive device (which sounds much classier than “hydrogen bomb”), you and your friends in the high school science club made one, and it blew up? Who would be liable? Maybe in this case the liability question would only come into play if it didn’t blow up.

Either way, the American legal system is big on fixing blame. And “public domain” doesn’t necessarily protect the author, artist or inventor from liability the way a well-written FOSS license does. Worse, “public domain” and “liability” can both have different meanings under different legal systems.

Creative Commons licenses are not on the OSI list. One reason is that CC licenses tend to be oriented more toward literary works than toward software (or nuclear weapons). And they don’t talk much, if at all, about patents. Software licenses, on the other hand, often do concern themselves with patents. And a lot of US government software may have patented bits and pieces stuck in here and there. This is one justification for the government, if not a specific branch of the military, to have its own software license(s).

In case you feel like reading it, there is a document on GitHub titled The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) Software Release Process for Unrestricted Public Release. It is exactly what that long title says it is.

There’s also a document on GitHub titled Contributing to Our Projects, Version 1.1 which is part of rather than Army-specific.

If you want to read every comment about this topic on the OSI License discuss email list, go ahead. The archives are public. That’s why I’m not going any farther here. Those who want to go deeper into the question of how many FOSS licenses the American military should have can dive into those archives. The rest of you? Well… I have a little story to tell:

Link to former article on EUPL (European Union Public License)


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