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The White House’s Open Source Plan

July 14, 2017
PPI Intern Kevin Lawler discusses the software designation and its future.

What is Open Source?

Open Source has become a large aspect of software creation. Traditionally, software is protected by copyright, so anyone who wants to use the software has to pay to either buy or license it from the creator. When the creator releases a piece of software under an Open Source license, however, it is generally free for others to use. Over the past several years, the federal government has been aiming to release more and more of the software its employees create as Open Source and with these new goals, it is important to know about the benefits and restrictions that can result from this process.

It may be easy for many to confuse open source with public domain. However, the two have some critical differences. All works will eventually enter the public domain and lose their protection, which makes it so anyone can use them for free. This loss of protection essentially means that the work has become open game – anyone can now take that work and do just about anything they want with it. This is what happened with Pride and Prejudice, which was recently transformed into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. The new author was free to take whatever he wanted from the original book and make his own, protectable additions. Grahame-Smith now has copyright protection and control over his “and Zombies” portion and is able to license the movie rights to make money.

Image: Open source lock. Source: Pixabay.Image: Open source lock. Source: Pixabay.

The difference between open source and public domain can be seen by changing a few of the facts in this situation. Imagine, instead of a book being published in 1813, Jane Austen had released the open source software, Pride_And_Prejudice.exe. In this case, the Austen could have released the program under any open source contract that she wanted.

In modern day Open Source Licensing, it is likely that Pride_and_Prejudice.exe would be released under one of the more popular licensing agreements, such as Apache 2.0 and the General Public License (GPL). Even between different licenses, the outcome can be drastically different. Under Apache 2.0, a common license, the situation can still be very similar to public domain situations: Grahame-Smith is free to do whatever he pleases [1]. But under the GPL, the situation changes a lot. The GPL brings an obligation to release modifications under the same license [2]. This means that Grahame-Smith’s alterations would be released under an open source license. This would result in the release of the whole series to public for free – and movie or sequel would need to be released under the same GPL license.

Open Source in the Private Sector

Over the past decade, companies have embraced the idea of creating open source products. IBM, Computer Associates, Sun Microsystems, and RedHat were companies that contributed their products to the open source market even in the early 2000s [3]. Intel and Dell both later came to profit by taking advantage of Linux, the open source operating system [4]. In 2012, RedHat became the first company that was primarily focused on open source software to achieve $1 billion in annual revenue [5]. The success of these companies’ use of open-source software shows that it’s possible to use concept to do more than just save money, but also strengthen an organization.

The Federal Government’s Open-Source Software

The Federal Government has been making efforts to keep up with the times when it comes to Open-Source Software. Under President Obama, OM-16-21 [6] was issued and President Trump’s administration has continued to push forward its goals [7]. With this memorandum, open-sourcing was brought to the attention of each federal agency. It brought about the requirement that 20% of all federal government code be released as open source software. This saves both time and money for the federal government – which will face a less burdensome load of costly software coding. According to a 2009 study, the top four factors that influenced entities to use open source software were lower cost, security, no vendor lock-in, and better quality [8]. The government is being highly driven by this first factor. The idea is that the government will release its code from each, separate agency and the agencies that may never communicate will have the opportunity to save portions of their budgets by sharing codes with each other.

Time will tell exactly how this open-source policy influences those outside of the agencies but it could be very exciting to see. Public interest groups and other organizations that do not have a large budget when it comes to software development could be looking at an extremely valuable new pool of options. NASA has created its own Software Catalogue that features hundreds of pieces of software that are released through open source licenses. Organizations like the Peace Corps could take advantage of software like “Piping Stress Analysis Software.” Health Organizations could take advantage of software made for kidney stone detection [9] or processing and analyzing human physiological data [10]. There are also programs for performing audits [11], for creating customer surveys [12], and to assist in accounting [13].

The availability of these programs for free can take a massive budget strain off of public interest groups. It would also save time for the groups by eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel on some of these programs or even spark new projects based on software capabilities that organizations hadn’t previously known existed. It will be exciting to see the impact that these open source programs could make. However, it will be important for agencies to keep in mind the different licenses they are working with so they are not forced into a situation where they do not want to be in.


Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1] “Explanations, Instructions, and Answers,” the Apache Software Foundation, accessed June 13, 2017, http://www.apache.org/foundation/preFAQ.html
  [2] “GNU General Public License,” GNU Operating System, last modified June 29, 2007, https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-3.0.en.html
  [3] “An Open Secret,” The Economist, October 22, 2005. http://www.economist.com/node/5015177
  [4] McMillan, Robert, “Red Hat Becomes Open Source’s First $1 Billion Baby,” Wired, March 28, 2012. https://www.wired.com/2012/03/red-hat/
  [5] Id.
  [6] Scott, Tony and Anne E. Rung, “Memorandum for the Heads of Departments and Agencies,” Office of Management and Budget, August 8, 2016. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2016/m_16_21.pdf
  [7] Scott, Tony and Anne E. Rung, “Memorandum for the Heads of Departments and Agencies,” Office of Management and Budget, accessed June 20, 2017. https://sourcecode.cio.gov/OSS/
  [8] Guseva, Irina, “Bad Economy is Good for Open Source,” CMSWired.com, March 26, 2009. http://www.cmswire.com/cms/web-cms/bad-economy-is-good-for-open-source-004187.php
  [9] “Kidney Stone Detection Using a Combined Method of B-Mode and Doppler Ultrasound, UW C4C Reference No. 45493,” NASA Technology Transfer. https://software.nasa.gov/software/MSC-25189-1
  [10] “POSTPROC User-Interactive Software for the Analysis of Human Physiological Data,” NASA. https://software.nasa.gov/software/ARC-15287-1
  [11] “Configuration Auditing Tool (CAT),” NASA. https://software.nasa.gov/software/GSC-15309-1
  [12] “Customer Survey,” NASA. https://software.nasa.gov/software/MFS-33069-1
  [13] “Closed-Loop Accounting Management System (CLAMS),” NASA. https://software.nasa.gov/software/KSC-12289


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