The government of India has mandated open standards for all its IT systems as fears mount that Europe's equivalent European Interoperability Framework has been hijacked by rights holders.
India's policy orders software patent holders to give up any royalty rights they have over interoperability standards. If rights holders refuse, their standards simply won't be used in government systems.
The sub-continent's radical position sets the bar high for governments like the UK, which was elected on a promise to promote open standards but has - to the dismay of open systems campaigners in its own ranks - seemed reluctant to mandate open interoperability. The government is expected to declare its position on open systems in its new ICT strategy by the end of the year.
India's policy, published this week, mandated that all new government systems must use open standards. Old systems must use open standards when they interoperate with other systems and must be converted to use open standards when upgraded, it said.
"Patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard shall be made available on a Royalty-Free basis for the lifetime of the Standard," said India's policy document.
It said proprietary standards could be used, but temporarily when suitable open standards were not available. The government would seek to establish a single open standard for each area of its business.
The policy "promotes technology choice, and avoids vendor lock-in" and "aims for reliable long-term accessibility to public documents and information", it said.
India made its bold statement as the EU prepares to publish the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) 2.0, an update of its equivalent standards policy that has been on the drawing board for more than two years following widespread consultation, and repeated re-drafting.
André Rebentisch, general secretary of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, said the EIF had been delayed by lobbying from rights holders in the software industry who did not want open standards mandated.
"The result will be an even more watered down version," he said.
Mark Henley, director of the IT practice at law firm Wragge & Co, said while European member states favoured open standards as a way of reducing costs, rights holders like Microsoft might challenge an attempt to mandate them.
"A high-level policy that mandates open standards or open source is all very laudable, but the actual implementation is not always straightforward," he said.
"Specifying a particular open standard in a procurement exercise will prevent vendor lock-in but it could favour suppliers who have already implemented the standard over others who haven't. That could give rise to a complaint founded on discrimination."
A spokesman for the European Commission's directorate of administration said it was committed to publishing the redrafted EIF by the end of 2010. Drafts had been published for consultation.
Graham Taylor, chief executive of open source industry body Open Forum Europe, said the EIF had been inspirational when first drafted in 2008, but it had been "got at" by rights holders and the draft had since been through numerous revisions as member states battled to have open standards upheld against the wishes of the software patent lobby.
"Countries like India have meanwhile just got on and shown some true leadership," he said.
The UK's coalition government, said Taylor, had meanwhile given a "very promising" indication of its intentions over standards.
He referred to Number 10's transparency commitments, which last week set a line in the sand for the Cabinet Office's forthcoming ICT strategy.
"We couldn't have wished for better wording from the UK government at the moment," said Taylor.