Sweet Spot between Open/Free Software/Source Code/Standards
(I am a Capita employee and am posting personal opinions unrelated to my employer.)
I'd like to pick apart slightly the different meanings of 'Open' and how the forum sees the capabilities and needs of governments within that context. From memory, "open" has meant many things during my professional career;
1) Originally it signified either a published standard of specification (typically for data transfer file formats). I remember systems which could transact CSV files being described as having 'open data transfer' capabilities.
2) Open then came to mean some kind of compliance with an open standard, rather than publishing a proprietary standard.
3) Open also seems to mean to some people 'open source code', where third parties can view a set of source code in order to critique/understand its function, but with the source code remaining under copyright.
4) Open also has meant the adherance to certain API standards such as COM etc in order that certain components of systems can be unplugged and alternatives provided from another source.
5) Latterly Open has come to mean software source code distributed with an open copyright where the originator no longer enforces their right to limit the copying of the source code.
In response to the original question posed, it seems to me that a government has a unique role in setting specifications for data transfer standards for data to be transacted within the government (such specification becomes the 'legal tender' of data). In this case the government is acting as a client for industry, and defines how industry should send data back and forth to it (for industry, substitute 'department of government' for education). If the governments data specifications are best met be a pre-existing international open standard, so much the better, but it makes little difference within the borders of that nation. A parallel with currency is useful here - governments specify 'legal tender' as being the specie that is used by the government to denominate government debt; it doesn't care what citizens actually use to trade with each other, so long as the government only needs to handle 'its' currency when it comes to government transactions.
Does a government have a unique capability to publish computer source code, and seek contributions to its construction ? Here I think the situation isn't quite as clear. I'm not sure any government department has a unique expertise in software construction; its not a function of state. If the argument is that a government should specify the method by which software is constructed when that software is paid for directly, or indirectly out of taxation revenues, then it follows that we believe the government to be uniquely capable of being correct in their decision on the method of construction. I don't see where this projected expertise arrives from. Where governments have used external consultants to provide that level of strategic advice, its not been universally popular or successful.
What is the functional difference between a product procured by government, then provided freely to its citizens, and one which the government specifies must be provided to its citizens under an copyright-free arrangement ? The first model is illustrated by the BBC. Essentially the government has 'picked a winner' and provided its product freely to its citizens; however the product is neither free to produce nor a community endeavour. Alternatively the government could have specified that all television (and radio etc) be provided free to its citizens and specified the mode of production and in addition declined to fund it. I would agree this would mean lower taxes, but would it mean a better outcome ?
I hope this slightly wooly line of reasoning does make sense to some of the forum participants; I know a lot of you are very positive about the Open Source/Free Source model, but I'd like to see if there are parallels in other industries where open specifications have actually led to a similar solution to that advocated in the Open Source/Free Source community. My PC is built from components that follow a mixture of open and proprietary (published) specifications - however I can't see how it could ever have been produced for 'free'. Is it that, because software reproduction has zero marginal cost, it leads us to believe that paying for an easily reproduced item is somehow incorrect. Even in the sphere of gaming (a non trivial industry) moddable games are a huge seller, customisable to the nth degree, but they are not free and are not Open Source - is this 'open enough' or is there an absolute neccessity for highly customisable software to be free at the point of consumption ?
OSS and Marginal Production Costs
If you can stand my 'dialectic' philosophy a bit more, I'd be intrigued to find out how this fits in elsewhere ?
Originally Posted by nephilim
Its the fact that software reproduction has zero marginal cost (i.e. one can copy it with almost zero additional cost) that means the "free software" model is more viable than otherwise ? OSS not only grants a license to re-use, it also (generally) grants that license free of charge. It doesn't neccessarily follow that all the other declared benefits of OSS hang off the "free of cost license" model. Bear with me;-
If the relationship between marginal cost and charge to the consumer is valid, then the following must be true - "it is better for society that products must be sold for a price equivalent to their marginal cost of production for a single unit". I believe this is the moral point being made by OSS - as you say "1 person who wants to better the world" is a moral position; it talks about "bettering" the world rather than making an argument that such a mode of production leads inherently to a better product.
If this argument is to stand, I suppose it must (on the same moral and philosphical grounds) be applied to all other products which have the same low marginal reproduction cost. All electronic media entertainment for instance would be required by a government to be provided free of royalties to their citizens. This seems odd; and indeed its not the case. The artist decides under what license they will have their work reproduced - the government has no role. When applied to something like the BBC it would required that 'all artists broadcast by the BBC must waive their royalties in perpetuity'. Here I'm trying to make a difference between what the artist might choose to do (out of the goodness of their hearts; or alternatively to raise their media profile) and what role a government has to play in mandating such an arrangement. Would this neccessarily lead to better music and films ?
How about the "millionth mini" - would that also need to be provided at a charge equivalent to its marginal cost of reproduction ? If it applies to the millionth mini, what about the first one off the production line whose marginal cost is enormous. It seems the manufacturer would need to act as some kind of charity, backed by some kind of investment (but not from the end-consumer; else its simply a proxy for a consumption charge negating the argument) which is written off immediately the product goes on sale. This is essentially what OSS authors are doing - waiving the initial production costs of software and charging the marginal costs on reproduction (nil) and the marginal cost of installation and training (some).
Thanks for debating this - its easy for this kind of thing to become swiftly accusatory.