FLOSS and Grants

A couple weeks ago, I gave a talk to all of the folks who received grants from the Knight Foundation as part of the Knight News Challenge. I gave a pretty basic "this is what free software and source are all about" with an emphasis on history, licenses, and community management. Knight asked me to give the talk because they require their grantees to release any software produced as part of the grant under a free/libre open source software (FLOSS) license but many of the grantees don’t know much about FLOSS. Knight makes FLOSS a requirement because, as a charity committed to the promotion of the public good, they feel that they can better live up their own mission by ensuring that grant-funded code is released freely. The positive impact is already being seen. For example, as part of the requirement, we recently saw the release of the code behind Adrian Holovaty’s wonderful EveryBlock.

Then last week, I heard from my friend Jean-Baptiste Soufron about two calls for grants (announcement is in French) by the French Government that will finance projects around Web 2.0 and serious gaming to the tune of 20 and 30 million Euros. One of the requirements of the grants: projects must be released as free software and built using open standards. I know that, in the past, the Open Society Initiative has gone out of its way to fund FLOSS projects as well.

It’s exciting news but it also had me scratching my head. Why are funders dedicated to the public good — groups like foundations and governments — ever not making FLOSS a requirement of grants that involve software development?

One good way to ensure that grant-givers live up to their own obligations to improve the public good is to make sure that the products of their grants are, themselves, public goods. FLOSS is an easy way to make this happen. As in Knight’s case, requiring FLOSS can also make it easier for funders to support work by for-profit companies while making it clear that the grant is not just free money to help enrich a commercial entity. Even if a company is doing the work, the product will remain under the control of its users as long its free.

I hope that these examples are the beginning of a trend. I look forward to the day when charities and governments take such requirements for granted.