A few weeks ago (Computerworld, August 20) I wrote about commercialising our national IP. The basic idea — and it was basic — was that there is a lot of clever development going on within government and that this should be captured and commercialised where appropriate.
Recently, I noticed that a commentor on the New Zealand Open Source Society website took issue with the suggestion. “GrAnt05s” (sometimes I could hate the internet) argues that while my idea may have some immediate appeal, “it is likely to have some serious unintended consequences”.
Firstly, he says, “it might reduce the availability of government-funded software to local agencies — government and NGO — working in health, education, and social services etc.
“Government software released under an open source licence will always be more accessible and customisable.
“Secondly, it could distort development resources towards areas of the greatest commercial potential and away from those of greatest importance in terms of government objectives. The IP of hard-to-commercialise software will probably be locked up just in case, thus making it unavailable to others.
“And thirdly, it would probably undermine the widespread adoption of open source technologies within government — losing all the cost and innovation benefits that this would have entailed.”
Fair enough. I’m not saying we should commercialise everything. Our guide as to whether or not to head down this path for any given innovation would be whether it is in the national interest. So, to use one example referred to in my original column, let’s apply this to Statistics New Zealand. The system developed there is potentially attractive to other statistics departments around the world. New Zealand only has one and therefore, arguably, only one potential user.
If that is the case, it would seem reasonable to suggest commercialisation could be in the national interest, though I’m sure other factors would come into play as well. Interestingly, The Australian reported the other day that the Western Australian Government is about to award global rights for the commercialisation of its courts management system, which is already being implemented by the State of Michigan at a cost of US$17 million.
Unisys West is in the running for that gig. Its general manager Brian Lee told The Australian sales opportunities are likely to exceed the A$20 million cost of developing the software.
“The IP will reside with the WA Government and they will receive a royalty payment for any sales,” Lee said, adding that three other US states are interested in the software, as well as the Netherlands and Hong Kong.
Of GrAnt05s’ three points, I find the second the strongest, except for the likelihood that the department that does the development would neither be the organisation undertaking the commercialisation nor the one benefiting. The benefits would flow directly back to the government through some uber-body such as the State Services Commission.
Therefore, agencies would have little incentive to stray from pursuing their corporate objectives. In the end, each case would be considered on its merits, including some or all of the objections GrAnt05s raises. If commercialisation passes these and other tests, then there seems little reason to object — unless those objections are religious.