I have been made aware of a meme passing around Government purchasing circles to the effect that Government ought not to be dictating licence terms in the course of procurement. This has two variants, a strong variant that Government ought not be specifying, for example, a class of licence that ought to apply to the procurement and a less strong variant to the effect that Government ought not be specifying particular licence terms. Of course, the underlying aim of this meme is that if a Government can’t dictate licence terms then it can’t require open source.
To argue these positions requires a complete lack of understanding of the role that a licence plays in an acquisition. I will take software as an example, but any procurement involving a licence would serve as well. When anyone “acquires” a piece of software they, primarily, acquire two things. The first, is a copy of the software being acquired. The second is a licence in relation to that software. Neither is useful without the other. A copy, even legitimately acquired, can’t be used* without a licence and a licence can’t be exercised without a copy. However, of these two components – the licence and the copy, the licence is by far the more important because it demarcates the whole of the uses to which the copy can be put. If your licence is good enough, you can dispense with the provision of a copy because you can acquire the copy from elsewhere. The acquisition of the licence, and the terms of the licence are the greater part of the substance of the procurement.
To take a practical example, if I were to buy a copy of Office from Microsoft I can choose from Office Home and Student 2013 or Office Home and Business 2013. Microsoft provides a comparison chart which discloses that the main difference between these two packages is that the first can only be used for “Home Use” while the second can be used for “Home or Business Use”. Now, the purpose for which I might use Microsoft Office is not a function of the copy of the software I acquire. It is wholly derived from the licence terms which apply to that copy. To argue that the Government is not able to specify the characteristics of a licence is to literally prohibit Government from discriminating between a licence which permits only home use (which would be useless to the Government) and one which permits use in the course of business.
For a public servant to even entertain the possibility of a broad based limitation on specifying licence characteristics would be to demonstrate a total failure to understand the subject matter. The licence is the substance of any software acquisition. To not be able to specify licence characteristics is equivalent to not being able to include technical specifications in any other sort of acquisition. It is a nonsense.
The only time where specifying a licence ought to be prohibited is where the licence terms effect an exclusionary dealing. So, if the licence terms permitted use only by persons who had signed up for some form of online service being offered by a third party, that would be anticompetitive because it would require bidder’s customers to be funneled through to the a third party. Open source licences do not have these dependencies.
* technically, some uses may be permitted if they do not involve an infringement. However, the scope of things which count as an infringement these days is so broad that in any practical scenario the use of software will involve performing an activity which would, in the absence of a licence, infringe copyright.