VistA License debate: its about proprietarization

It looks like WorldVistA is, for now, holding fast to the GPL and AGPL for VistA licensing. I have been a vocal advocate for compromising with DSS and Open Health Tools around the LGPL. The LGPL would allow for some innovations to be licensed under the GPL, and others, in the core of VistA to be compatible to bundle with proprietary software.

Recently, Skip McGaughey was quoted in modernhealthcare as saying:

“I believe it’s all about community-building,” McGaughey said. “I believe people have focused too much on technology and licenses and they need to focus on the care of individuals. If we can switch the focus from licensing and technology—the VistA community has a tremendous opportunity to fundamentally alter care throughout the world.”

“They’re starting from a base that has a tremendous knowledge base, built by care providers, tested and modified over a long period of time,” McGaughey said. “So, the opportunity is tremendous. So what we have to do is change the focus and quit worrying about the individual ‘me’ and talk about the ‘we’ together,” he said.

“If we enable an environment for people to collaborate in building infrastructure that everybody can use, to share the expense, what we can do is build the integration and interoperability and build a collaborative spirit,” McGaughey said. “Then people can climb the value stack to provide added value that can make money.”

It should be noted that I was not at the talk and did not hear exactly what Skip said. I know Skip and I know that he is a good guy, I think he intended to bring a message of reconciliation regarding licensing which is very good.  I may actually agree with Skip’s position, but I cannot agree with this quote. While I am in favor of compromising with Open Health Tools, the position of WorldVistA on insisting on the full GPL is not unreasonable and it is certainly not anti-people.

Lets be clear, when you talk about proprietary friendly licenses in medicine, you are not talking about a way for people to “make money” or “earn a living”, you are talking about a mechanism that traps software consumers into a monopoly relationship with a software provider.  Proprietary software in healthcare is so famous for abusing this monopoly position to the detriment of its clients that the issue is being investigated by congress and is even the subject of in-depth lampooning.

To trivialize licensing and indicate that is about “people” is typical and insincere. The software license defines the basic power structure of a relationship between software developer and software consumer. Full copyleft ensures that the developer and the consumer are always equals. Proprietary licenses ensure that the software vendor is in control. Open Source licenses that allow for proprietarization are a grey area. If software consumers are careful only to use Open Source components, they can maintain a balance of power, but if they ever allow a proprietary module into their ecosystem, then the license for that module puts some vendor back in the drivers seat.

If there was an “open” movement in the prisons around the world so that all prisoners were limited to just one shackle, they would still remain prisoners. Similarly as long as one software vendor can dictate terms to a clinic or hospital, they have a problem. Proprietary vendors who do not abuse their clients are like kind wardens. Just because they are nice a prisoner, does not change the fundamental power dynamic in the relationship.

The LGPL is a compromise precisely because it allows people who value freedom to work with people who are willing to compromise with proprietary vendors.

When you start hearing people saying things like “value stack” and “let people make money”, you are hearing the argument that being trapped is sometimes OK, if what you get for it is worth it.

This kind of power dynamic is precisely what prevents communities from trusting each other and cooperating. If you want to create community, you better not ignore licensing concerns.

-FT

Why so many non-profits?

When I get a good question from a conference or email, I like to answer it in a blog post so that I can just link it in when others ask me the same thing in the future.

One of the good questions I got was:

Why are there so many “Open Source Health Care” non-profits, yet few seem to have much activity?  I see OpenVista, OpenHealthTools, WorldVista, and yours (Liberty Health) just to name a few.  Just to ask the awkward question, are the differences between them worth it?  What Apache and Mozilla prove is that there is power in scale even in non-profits – to be able to talk as one really helped people figure out who to pay attention to. We wouldn’t have really been able to negotiate with Sun over the open sourcing of Java, for example, if we were speaking as a bunch of separate orgs.  Thoughts?

So here is the downlow on the organizations issue.

There is no OpenVistA non-profit (that I know of) but if there is one, it would be exclusively focused on the Medsphere version of VistA called OpenVistA. In fact there are several projects that have non-profits focused exclusively on that particular project. FreeMED and OpenEMR (oemr.org) both have their own foundations. WorldVistA also has a project, called WorldVistA EHR, but its mission is more generally supportive of different versions of VistA. WorldVistA balances between being both a single project and focused on supporting VistA generally as a meta-project organization. With that said, WorldVistA is exclusively focused on VistA, it certainly cares about certain other projects, like Mirth, but only because Mirth can be used to make VistA better. Probably the most successful accomplishment of WorldVistA is that they were the first FOSS licensed project to achieve CCHIT certification and they have regular, well-attended meetings that have good attendance from almost all of the VistA community. In terms of numbers of bodies in the real-world, WorldVistA has the largest and most active community.

There is also an group representing the VistA vendors called the VistA Software Alliance. The are not formally associated with WorldVistA and also support VistA vendors who choose to make VistA into a proprietary product (DSS, for instance, still does this in some cases). So there are organization who support VistA without explicitly endorsing Open Source or Freedom.

Open Health Tools is another story altogether, it historically, has been focused on interoperability tools: from its FAQ

….to create a common health interoperability framework, exemplary tools and reference applications to support health information interoperability.

Given this it came as a surprise that Open Health Tools worked with DSS on the release of portions of vxVistA under the EPL. While that release was significant, bringing the number of major rollups of VistA at the time to 3 (now there are 4), Open Health Tools counseled DSS into using the EPL, which is relatively unpopular with the VistA community, which have generally settled on the FSF licenses (all three of the other rollups use a GPL variant). If Open Health Tools had used the LGPL, or even Apache which strives for GPL compatibility, it might have been possible to have cross pollination between all of the major development instances of VistA. So there is a small licensing debate that is going on between the traditional VistA crowd and the Open Health Tools (there some are indications that this might be resolved soon)

In any case, Open Health Tools is designed to be a Forge site, attracting developers and providing collaboration facilities for several major projects at once. It has major industry backing and is an important force in our community. If you want to see where Open Health Tools shine, you should attend a connectathon, where many vendors, including proprietary ones, use OHT toolkits to achieve phenomenal scores. If connectathon was a competition, OHT would be winning, by a large margin. Although DSS has gotten lots of attention as an OHT contributor, the most significant contributor is actually Misys Open Source Solutions (MOSS). MOSS uses the OHT forge for development and is releasing their considerable tool set through OHT. Laika (the CCHIT interoperability compliance tool) uses OHT hosted MOSS components in its tool chain. Even if CCHIT is not chosen as the certifying body for ARRA, Laika will likely form the basis of interoperability testing in the US for the foreseeable future.

Probably one of the oldest organizations in the FOSS healthcare space is OSCHA (as of the writing, the website looks down) . OSCHA was active about a decade ago and then went dormant. It was rehabilitated by an international group and has now started having conferences again. This group has largely been tainted by the relelation that the project pushed by the founding president of OSCHA was not actually available to anyone under a FOSS license. The current OSCHA organization might be rehabilitated and the international focus of the new group is admirable, but for now the organizations future is in question. (OSCHA section added July 10 2009 in reponse to a comment)

Finally, Liberty Health Software Foundation, which I helped start and which I am currently serving as the director of, is devoted to the general advancement of FOSS in healthcare. Personally I view the organization as a kind of cleanup organization, taking those roles that require a non-profit, but that have and cannot be addressed by other non-profits. Here are several points of our strategy that set us apart.

  • We are project neutral, VistA is important but there are many other solid EHR projects out there that deserve support.
  • We are license neutral. We will support any FOSS license, and generally want to avoid getting into the ‘Free’ vs. ‘Open Source’ licensing debate.
  • We are not concerned with the ‘category’ of software, but rather its relevance. If something does not fit neatly into the current terminology of EHR, PHR, Integration and other, we will still happily work to advance the project if it might make an impact.
  • We will try to focus our development on: the boring (like documentation) that for-profit companies view as a last-priority, and development that could spawn new development. We will not be a Forge project, instead relying on other projects (like Open Health Tools) to provide a collaboration platforms.
  • We will be supporting smaller projects by providing them space at conferences.
  • We will be promoting FOSS conferences, like SCALE, and creating our own, like FOSShealth.
  • We will do -very- limited lobbying in support of FOSS.
  • We will provide an industry trade group made up of FOSS vendors, hybrid vendors, and proprietary-but-FOSS-friendly vendors.
  • Where possible to promote obviously legitimate projects as alternatives to proprietary systems, to whoever will listen.

Obviously Liberty has lots of overlap with the other meta-project groups like WorldVista and Open Health Tools especially, but we are the first organization designed intentionally to embrace everyone in the Healthcare FOSS community. I hope that by creating a central organization, that seeks support not from companies like Oracle and Microsoft, but by companies like Mirth, ClearHealth, Misys, Medsphere, DSS and Akaza Research (not a comprehensive list by any means). Companies that obviously have a significant financial interest in our movement as a whole succeeding. Also we want support from the project or multi-project specific non-profits like Open Health Tools, WorldVistA and the OpenEMR Foundation.

It is worth noting that our community is simply never going to organize itself exactly the same as the wider FOSS movement. Liberty will typically be taking roles that normally, OSI, EFF or FSF might fill in the broader space. Open Health Tools will typically be operating more like the Apache, Eclipse or Mozilla foundations with a specific development focus. However, I hope and expect that we will get frequent role reversals and overlap. Why? Because we are still a very very small community in terms of devoted developers. I would expect that there are less than 1000 people who are devoted to developing FOSS licensed healthcare applications full time. There is way more activating, advocating and forging to get done than any organization could accomplish. Unless Liberty, WorldVistA and Open Health Tools each continue to fulfill their ‘part’, we are in trouble! It would take years for another non-profit to step in the gap left by any of these three meta-project organizations.

So, for today, that is how the non-profit space in FOSS healthcare breaks down.

HTH

-FT

MOSS Misys Open Source Solutions

MOSS (Misys Open Source Solutions) has come into it’s own as a force both within FOSS and within it’s chosen domain of interoperability.

MOSS is led by Tim Elwell and Alesha Adamson, they could often be found at the interoperability showcase where they performed as one of the few PIX/PDQ services.

At this conference especially Tim was instrumental in helping the FOSS community communicate it’s concerns to CCHIT. This speaks volumes about the transition of Misys as an suspect outsider to not merely acceptance as a legitimate FOSS community member but a leadership role within health IT FOSS. .

The MOSS implementation is probably the most mature available under a FOSS license, and will soon be in the running for the title of best under any license. I can say that if they are overtaken it will only be another FOSS project that could catch them and there are several good projects who might.

Probably the most significant evidence of this dominate role was the muted announcement by the CCHIT Laika project that the MOSS project, along with Mirth, was selected as one of the testing tools for coming interoperability tests.

MOSS is also formalizing it’s offering for those organizations who are attempting to do serious clinical data interchange. I regularly use Alesha for informal sanity checks for my own HIE ideas, and every time I do I regret that we do not have the budget to bring MOSS in to provide a more formal structure. Compared to other HIEs I usually feel efficient but when I hear about the MOSS offerings I feel like I am doing all of the right things but flying by the seat of my pants.

Hopefully I will get Tim to let me replicate some of the graphics from his handout about the MOSS CobIT-based offering..  and here it is!! MOSS HIMSS 09 handout…

In the meantime here is a shot of Alesha at the Allscripts booth at the interoperability showcase.

Credit where it is due

I use this forum to grip quite a bit. When someone does something silly or stupid, I do not hesitate to blast them. It is only fitting that when someone does something right, they get equal time for praise.

Skip McGaughey and his new group the Open Health Tools seem to qualify. Here is what they have done right:

  • They have some of the most important players already committed to the movement, including Eclipse, IBM, Red Hat and the VA.
  • They are posting the minutes to their meetings on the web, demonstrating a commitment to openness.
  • They already have a good FAQ which is complete enough to include some of their thoughts on licensing. Again, openness.
  • They are posting detailed information about their initial project.
  • Skip already has credibility in the community because of his participation within Eclipse community.
  • The particpants in may cases are already releasing substantial health code-bases, so the group has lots of “doers”.

Its not often that I can recommend someone out of the gate, but so far it appears that the Open Health Tools group is firing on all cylinders. They only thing left to do is make new, relevant, and usable code that gets deployed in real clinical environments.

Modern Healthcare interpreted my reaction to the groups announcement as “skeptical“, which I would probably rephrase as “hopeful”. (The problem with generally being skeptical is that even your hope can come across as negative….)

But who cares what I have to say? Dana Blankenhorn already has an interview with Skip McGaughey up, and it is definitely worth a read!!

-FT