Enabling open core

What license should you consider for your new Health IT platform? As you consider that, you should think carefully about your user audience. You want people in the Open Source community to develop against your code. You want people to add value to your core. To achieve this you have to recognize that our community does not share universal motivations. The most important detail that you need to understand about our community is the ways in which we we relate to proprietary software.

There are two general ways of thinking about how to relate to proprietary software within the FOSS movement.

There are those that believe that the most important potential feature in software is the ability to change and share it without restriction, which is software freedom.

Others in the FOSS community feel that the important issue is that we have a good method for collaboratively developing good software and if people want to make money selling software that restricts freedom (the definition of proprietary software) thats fine.

I am solidly in the first camp. However, for the purposes of this article I will treat them as equally valid perspectives. This respect for an opposing opinion is crucial for the FOSS community because we want to be able to develop software together!

People in the first group we might call freedom sticklers and the second group we will call pragmatic openers.

Before we move on we should discuss the basics of licensing. I have written on licensing before, but you will find my freedom stickler bias in those writings. I will try to avoid that here.

The most important thing to understand about licensing (for this discussion) is to consider the perspective of the person who accepts a license with the intention of redistributing the sourcecode with other software.

Imaging that Ozzie the Originator released some valuable software called coreware. He decides to release the code as open source! He must consider several perspectives as he chooses a license.

Freedom loving Fredi ;) wants to ensure that whenever possible software that he writes will not be used to allow someone to control another person. Fredi appreciates the value of coreware and writes a module for it called Fredis freely scanning module.

However Proprietary Pat also has scanning application that has far more functionality than Fredis module. She likes the idea of open source but, for whatever reason, is not in a position to release her own software under a FOSS license. It is important to note that if Pat did not have a functionally better scanning module than Fredi, there would be no reason for Ozzie to consider her interests. Ozzie knows that when an open option is available, functional and stable end users will always prefer it. This can be called the Open Source Sets the Floor effect.

Pat has software patents and proprietary software that she feels must be protected from the full GPL (a license popular with Fredi and his ilk). Certain provisions of the GPL can have the effect of devaluing software patents, or at least that is how patent owners often feel about it.

Then there is Indifferent Ingride who writes a printing application. She has no specific position on proprietary vs. FOSS. She just wants her printing software to be as useful to as many people as possible.

Ingrid, Fredi and Pat would all be willing to help Ozzie improve coreware assuming they are happy with the license. Ozzie knows that if everyone is not happy, someone will start a competing project with a license more to their liking. This would dilute the talent pool available to work on coreware!

Ozzie the Originator is a bind. He knows that he can chose a proprietary-friendly license like the Mozilla Public License or the Eclipse Public License that will make Pat happy. But Fredi will never agree to a license that would be incompatible with the licenses that ensure that he can keep his own software freedom respecting. For people like Fredi there is no substitute for two very popular keep-it-free licenses the GPLv3 and the AGPL. The Free Software Foundation keeps a list of licenses that are and are not compatible with the GPL.

What is Ozzie to do? How to keep both Fredi and Pat happy? The first place to look is the LGPL which stands for the Lesser General Public License. This license does two important things, first both Pat and Fredi can use coreware as the basis for the coreware + someothermodules under their preferred license. You can think of coreware + somemodules as a “rollup”.

From a licensing perspective some open source rollups are loosely coupled (like GNU/Linux distros) while other rollups are more tightly coupled (like the Linux kernel itself). Tightly coupled rollups must have identical or fully compatible licenses. Most thinking says that if one software package locally calls the functions exposed in another software package, then they are tightly coupled. (Any VA VistA -server- rollup is likely to be considered a tightly coupled rollup while the relationship between VistA clients and VistA servers would probably considered loosely coupled). It should be noted that these ideas are generally accepted as flowing from a consensus understanding by the Open Source community lawyers of the copyright rules of derivative works, not all of them look at this way.

Ingrid can release her printing component under the LGPL too; essentially adding it to the core… Both Pat and Fredi will then benefit from Ingrids code. Of course end users will have to chose between Pats code and Fredis code because their chosen licenses are incompatible. Each of them is creating a new rollup of coreware with a different family of licenses. While coreware can be included in each rollup, the two rollups are license incompatible.

Both Fredi and Pat can collaborate on coreware with a LGPL codebase because they know that in the end the license of their own module will determine how the LGPL acts for the their users. For Fredis users the LGPL upgrades to the GPL and the AGPL, but for Pat, the LGPL does not interfere with her proprietary license.

Everyone is happy. (or close)

Is the LGPL the only license that is intended to work in this way? No, but it is the license that is specifically designed to solve this problem. Another license that attempts to be compatible with GPL/AGPL projects is recent iterations of the Apache license. Apache is generally considered more proprietary friendly than the LGPL. If Ozzie uses the Apache license, Proprietary Pat could make changes to the internals of coreware, that she does not need re-distribute. Both Apache and the LGPL give here the right to “hoard” or “protect”, depending on your perspective on the matter ;) her module. But Apache also allows her to horde/protect her changes to coreware itself.

The reality of licensing is that at least two parties must be satisfied with the license. The end user and the most significant contributor. The GPLv2 made Torvalds happy, and his end users tolerate it. Everyone else in the Linux universe tolerates the GPL for Linux because the value of Torvalds original contribution and those contributions he was able to amass around that original contribution. Together these are too valuable to try and replicate. Companies that hate the GPL and everything it stands for, like Microsoft, contribute GPL code to the Linux kernel because Linux is too important for them to ignore. (P.S. If you hear someone talking about these issues in terms of viral or non-viral, you can bet that freedom is not a priority for them)

For VA VistA we have a conundrum, the originator of the code, the US government, has left the code basically licenseless. I believe this means that the choice if preferred license should be up to the most substantial third-party developers. I believe that the most substantial way to make VistA better is to make contributions that make further development easier. MUMPS is a great language but it makes VA VistA inaccessible to most programmers. Given that I believe the most significant third-party contributions to VA VistA are (in no particular order):

  • Medsphere’s OVID – because it lets you code for VistA in Java. (AGPLv3)
  • EWD from M/Gateway – because if you already code in MUMPS you should still be able to write web interfaces. (AGPLv3)
  • Astronaut VistA – because you want to be able to install… With all of the above development environments, in seconds…. Not months… (AGPLv3)
  • TMG-CPRS – because adding patients and correcting demographics should be easy. (GPL v2 or later as per the core WorldVistA EHR license)
  • OpenVistA CIS – because we want to be able to run VistA without Windows. (AGPLv3)
  • Timsons Fileman – VistA Fileman is an important core VistA component that has had many improvements since George Timson left the VA. (LGPL)

-all- of these applications do not just make VistA better, the are Platform Improvements. These improvements are designed to spur new innovation by making hard things easy or previously impossible things tractable.

-all- of these innovations (as far as I can tell) are available under either the GPL or AGPL.

I hope that it is now obvious why most of the VistA community believes that if there is to be collaboration between the Fredis and Pats of the VistA community it must be around a LGPL VistA core.

Soon DSS will be releasing a version of vxVistA under the Eclipse Public License. That license is not compatible with the GPL. If vxVistA is released under the EPL none of the above platform improvements would be available to vxVistA. However all of them are available to users of OpenVistA, WorldVistA and Astronaut VistA, all of which use GPL variants.

I have lauded the release of vxVistA but I fear that as a FOSS project, it will be stillborn because of the EPL. Users will be forced to choose between vxVistA and the considerable menu of proprietary partners whose patent and proprietary interests are satisfied by the EPL, and a projects where VA VistA is being improved -as a platform-

If we were talking about one or two minor improvements that might be available under the GPL variants the I would not take this position but practically, the most important member of any opencore community is not Fredi or Pat but Indifferent Ingrid. Ingrid wants to work with the best platform and contributes in such a way that it makes the platform itself better. Whoever wins the attention of Ingrid, wins.

These lessons are applied in the specific context of VistA, but I hope that is clear that these issues are generalizable to any Health Information Technology (HIT) platform.

(Update 10-13-09 Medsphere has released its server project under the LGPL)

(Update 10-16-09 Ben from Medsphere has responded to my post)

(Update 10-18-09 Thanks for Theodore Ruegsegger, who pointed out several serious errors… fixed)

-FT

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