Quebec's open-source software association is suing the provincial government, saying it is giving preferential treatment to Microsoft Corp. by buying the company's products rather than using free alternatives.


Facil estimates the Quebec government is spending $80 million a year on Windows Vista licences alone. ((Mary Altaffer/Associated Press))

The lawsuit by Facil was lodged with the Quebec Superior Court on July 15 and made public on Wednesday. In it, the group says the provincial government has refused to entertain competing bids from all software providers, opting instead to supply public-sector departments with products bought from proprietary vendors such as Microsoft and Oracle Corp.

Government buyers are using an exception in provincial law that allows them to buy directly from a proprietary vendor when there are no options available, but Facil said that loophole is being abused and goes against other legal requirements to buy locally.

"It shouldn't be the rule," Facil president Mathieu Lutfy told CBC News. "It goes against the public markets policy of the government, which requires them to stimulate competition and look for local alternatives. It's really an absurdity."

Between February and June, the Quebec government spent $25 million on software from Microsoft, Facil said. The group estimates the government is spending more than $80 million a year on licences for Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system alone.

Whereas proprietary vendors sell software for a fee and then charge for support and upgrades, open-source makers supply the software for free and bill only for subsequent services.

"Those are costs that could be saved," Lutfy said.

Officials at the Quebec government's procurement office could not be reached for comment.

Facil said the provincial government, as well as its federal counterpart, is woefully behind the rest of the world in terms of adopting open-source software in the public sector. Governments around the world are looking to lower their costs and reliance on specific software makers. France, for example, migrated more than 400,000 public-sector employees to open-source software in 2006, while the Netherlands recently banned the use of proprietary products in government.

"A strategic free software utilization in public administration could create thousands of jobs as well as a significant decrease in software licensing costs," Facil said in a press release. "However, Quebec's public administration refuses to even consider and evaluate these options."

Russell McOrmond of Facil's federal counterpart, the Canadian Association of Open Source, agreed that there is some innate resistance to using free software within the procurement arm of the government.

"There's a general lack of awareness of the software sector by the people who are actually making individual acquisition decisions," he said. "The policies say everything is open but the practice becomes a little different."

Much of the issue stems from the lobbying efforts of the big software vendors, McOrmond said.

"The proprietary software vendors have been very successful in convincing people in procurement, whether in government or the private sector, that software is a product and you buy it like you do an automobile," he said. "If you actually look at what software does, it's more like a service."

Facil is asking the Quebec court to ban the government from using the regulatory loophole that allows it to purchase proprietary software, and to force it to entertain competitive requests for proposal. The group is also seeking legal costs, but it is not asking for any damages.