Minnesota Botches IT Bill

Published June 1, 2005

Caught up in the fervor over open-source software and believing open-source alternatives save money, Minnesota wants to encourage the use of royalty-free operating systems such as Linux. The law, proposed as HF 2222, would require state agencies that opt for proprietary software to submit a justification to the legislature. Call it death by red tape.

While open-source options frequently are less expensive than their proprietary counterparts, opens-source software does not come without costs. (See “Free Software Isn’t Free, IT&T News, January 2005.) Sometimes its purchase is wise, sometimes not. As with any technology decision, there are tradeoffs. That is why such things should be left to Minnesota’s IT managers, who are paid by the state to make decisions, free of micromanagement by legislators who know little about the subject.

Harsh? Maybe. But the Minnesota lawmakers proved as much when, in their attempt to legislate open source, they made a hash out of the definition of the term.

First, the bill defines open-source software as carrying no royalties. That would not be troublesome by itself, but then the bill’s writers go on to confuse open source with open standards.

Open-source software, of which Linux is the best example, is owned by no one, hence it is royalty-free. Programmers are free to alter code with an aim toward improving its function. It represents the communitarian side of information technology and the Internet.

Open standards, on the other hand, address the way hardware and software work together. The GSM and CDMA wireless formats are open standards. DVD and VHS are open standards. The Portable Document Format (PDF) is an open standard. In all these cases, design specifications are openly available for applications developers to use. However, unlike open-source software, the underlying code is not open to modification, and its use is not royalty-free.

The Minnesota bill erroneously assumes open standards are royalty-free. Even worse, the bill would codify that error into law. Lines 2.15-2.17 of HF 2222 define open standards as “free to implement with no royalty or fee except for a fee or fees required by the standards organization for certification of compliance.” If the law is passed, IT managers throughout the state will have to begin justifying every single software purchase to the state, because with very little exception, even when standards are open, a royalty is being paid to someone, somewhere.

Minnesota lawmakers got carried away with the buzzword “open source” and looked no deeper at what it meant. When the government, in a Swiftian sense, declares that a pig can fly, we all enjoy a laugh. But pity the state employee who has to travel on the back of that pig!

From a technology standpoint, that’s the situation HF 2222 would create for Minnesota’s IT managers. It’s a prime example of why we should be concerned whenever legislators attempt to codify technology purchasing.

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is senior fellow for IT and telecom policy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of IT&T News.