The federal government has put out a call for information about software that doesn't cost anything to license, leading to speculation that government departments could soon be making more use of open-source software.

Public Works and Government Services Canada is accepting submissions about "no-charge licensed software" until Feb. 19 through Merx, a government website that allows vendors to bid on contracts.

The government request, first published on Jan. 20, defines such software as:

  • Proprietary software that can be downloaded for free.
  • Open-source software.

Companies like Microsoft usually require users to pay for a licence in order to install and use their proprietary software products, such as the Windows operating system.

'Given the state of the world economy, how can you not seriously consider capable software that's available at no cost?'— Evan Leibovitch, Canadian Association for Open Source

Open-source software is a specific class of software with free licences that must adhere to certain standards. For example, access to its source code must be available and its licence can't be tied to a specific technology, such as a certain operating system or brand of device.

Some examples of popular open-source software include the Linux operating system, the word processing suite OpenOffice and the web browser Mozilla Firefox.

The Merx posting is the first time the government has ever made such a formal request for information about this type of software, Public Works confirmed Thursday.

In this case, the government has specified that the request will not result in the awarding of any contract but will be used to put together guidelines related to the planning, purchase, use and disposal of such software within the government.

Procurement process favours proprietary software

Open-source software advocate Evan Leibovitch said he hopes the request will lead to government policies that give "a level playing field" to vendors of open-source software services, who provide technical and administrative support to companies that use open-source programs. He alleges these service providers currently face barriers when competing with proprietary software vendors in the government procurement process.

'The key thing is, I think everybody should realize it's a natural part of the market nowadays, so it's absolutely normal that the government look to [open-source software] .'— Bernard Courtois, Information Technology Association of Canada

"Obviously, this doesn't obligate them [the government] to do anything, but having the information is always preferable to not having it," said Leibovitch, who is on the board of directors for the Toronto-based Canadian Association for Open Source (CLUE).

Russell McOrmond, co-founder of the advocacy group GOSLING (Getting Open Source Logic Into Governments) and policy co-ordinator for CLUE, said the government's request is not "a major step forward, but it's a step forward."

When the government purchases software, it often assumes that it will have to pay for a licence and asks software vendors to bid for the contract, McOrmond said.

Vendors of open source software services don't respond to that initial call for tender because they have no licences to sell. But then, the government might ask for a separate round of bids for providing support services for the software, which open-source vendors could provide.

However, proprietary software typically prohibits the buyer of the licence to seek software support from anyone but the company that licensed the software. That means open-source service vendors are effectively shut out of the process.

Leibovitch said the government might have been reluctant in the past to embrace open-source software because of the accounting difficulties of owning software "assets" that are free, as well as some people's belief that "you get what you pay for."

But he suggested that the current recession might have made the government think again.

"Given the state of the world economy, how can you not seriously consider capable software that's available at no cost?" he said.

Government already uses some open-source software

Despite alleged barriers, Public Works said the government already makes use of some open-source software and that "there is significant interest for its continued use," which is one motivator behind the request.

Bernard Courtois, head of a group that represents Canada's information and communications technologies industry, said free and open-source software is already incorporated into many Canadian commercial software products.

'People who would normally find out about it through Merx are not the people that are going to be having the most interesting submissions.'— Russell McOrmond, GOSLING

"The key thing is, I think everybody should realize it's a natural part of the market nowadays, so it's absolutely normal that the government look to that," said Courtois, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Canada.

However, Courtois cautioned that software with free licences often requires more work on the part of either service providers or the user, so the total cost of ownership should be considered.

He said he hopes the request will result in a procurement process where the focus is on the outcome the government wants and all possible solutions are treated the same way.

"You can't start distorting the market by making especially favourable terms for open-source software that you wouldn't for other software," he said.

Financial savings not the only advantage of open source

Both Leibovitch and McOrmond said they hope the government will learn through its request that there are many benefits to open-source software other than the obvious financial advantages.

With open-source software, standards require free redistribution, and licence holders have a lot of the rights that normally exist only with the person who created that software, McOrmond said. That means competitors can support or modify the software.

"It's a complete free market," he said.

The worry of some open-source advocates is that the people who respond to the government's request will try to blur the distinction between free proprietary software and open-source software, McOrmond said.

He thinks the government would have been better off holding broader public consultations rather than soliciting information through Merx, which reaches mostly proprietary software vendors.

"People who would normally find out about it through Merx are not the people that are going to be having the most interesting submissions," he said.

On the other hand, Leibovitch said he's pleased that the government is using an "open-source" technique to get the information rather than just hiring a consultant.