Free/Open Source Software and Public Sofware: Concept Note




The purpose of this concept note is to shed some light on the notion of Public Software (Software Publico,SP), based on the original model developed by the Brazilian Government (Software Público Brasileiro – SPB), and compare it with the broader concept of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). The concept of SP has been picked up by UNDP’s International Public Software (IPS) regional programme which aims at expanding the concept and the use of SP in the Latin American and the Caribbean. The concept note will show that SP is essentially a new distributions form of FOSS that add specific additional safeguards and mechanisms for the better management and availability of the applications, with the aim of favoring the use and exchange of FOSS in the public sector in particular, and in society at large in general.


The Brazilian Public Software model emerged from the almost insurmountable challenges that public national institutions faced while trying to share software applications they have developed. Back then, the basic platform for computing operations was the mainframe environment which required that technical cooperation agreements for sharing software solutions were used. Such agreements, in addition to having to cope with the burden of complicated bureaucratic procedures, fell short of the established goals since the property of the source code remained in the hands of the original developers. Recipient institutions in fact became hostages of them. In addition, signed agreements could be revoked or canceled at any time, etc. The instability generated by this process inhibited, for a long time, the sharing of software solutions within all levels of government.

The implications of this failure were not surprising. Waste of resources due to duplication of efforts, failure to disseminate and replicate successful experiences and the sedimentation of a close cultures within public administration, preventing the flow of knowledge, were a few of the key ones.

The emergence and growth of FOSS in the 1990s started to changed the environment. The dissemination of the second version of the General Public License (GPL II), fostered a discussion on how public agencies could share the software solutions developed by the public sector. In 2004 the National Institute of Information Technology (ITI – an institution linked to the Office of the Presidency of Brazil), commissioned a study on compliance with Brazilian law of releasing all the software developed by the public sector as FOSS. One of the key findings of the study was that there was no legal obstacle that prevented this from taking place in Brazil.

In 2005, Brazil’s Federal Government Brazil licensed its first FOSS application. The solution licensed in 2005 was an Automatic Configuration and Computer Information Collecting tool (CACIC), developed by DATAPEV (Brazilain Social Security Data Processing Bureau), that aims to meet the mapping needs of IT resources from the government. It received a large number of enrollment for its development community, from users in public service and private enterprise to service providers in several locations around the country and now has 21,461 members, some of which in Uruguay, Argentina and Portugal. This reaction led to the perception that the solution was “answering a pent-up demand of society”1, and not only of public administration. The Brazilian government decided to propose then a robust model for distributing as FOSS software developed by public institutions, thus returning them to society.

FOSS and GPL Issues

Following FOSS standards, CACIC was issued under GPL, using a GPL II Portuguese made by Creative Commons. As with all other languages, the translation was not legally recognized by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). However, a license in Portuguese is a legal requirement in Brazil since it is a type of contract and as such it has to comply with specific national legislation. The refusal of the FSF to recognize translations of its original license (only available in English) and the search for options other than GPL II are issues that the IPS project will have to deal with as part of its activities.

It was then clear that the problems needed to be addressed went beyond the simple release of the code as FOSS and the four freedoms provided by GPL II. First, the distribution of software would have to be centralized and coordinated by a main body. This would avoid a dispersion of solutions or the discontinuation of projects as it occurred in many cases where government developed software as FOSS. Dispersion would prevent access to the full collection of government software solutions. It would also prevent national institutions to communicate among themselves, exchange implementation experiences and foster cross-sectoral communities of work. Lack of quality control and assurance of continuity and compliance with the legal system were also issues that needed to be openly faced. The latter would create uncertainty, making potential users, specially the public sector, hesitant to adopt the software being offered. Centralization would present an additional advantage: the ability to maintain in a single common space communities of practice on e-governance that could exchange knowledge and develop new synergies for better implementation and impact.

Brazil’s Software Publico Approach

The Brazilian Public Software (BPS) Portal was launched in December 2007 as a collective space for the Public Software in Brazil. In trying to answer the above mentioned issues, the initial model of the BPS included, besides the GPL II license requirement, the following features:

  • All solutions must be released as finished products, properly documented and tested just as shelf software. Development of changes and improvements are made over this first stable release.
  • The brand/name and should also be licensed together with the code, to ensure full continuity of the product, in case the original developer decides on internally discontinuing the solution. There is not at the present moment a common agreement on what form this licensing should take. The BPS project is working on a legal framework for this and, in the meantime, all solutions that are offered as Public Software have their brand/name rights transferred to the Ministry of Planning, Budget and Management (MPOG). (Will the IPS follow suit and have the rights transferred to UNDP? This may be a legal headache and a major put-off for the legal department. Should we leave this alone for the time being?)
  • The solutions are always to be made available in a public environment for the collaborative production of software and sharing practices with a set of collective rules common to all cosigners of the model. This environment will be managed by a committee of coordinators of the communities. Administrative functions are performed by the host portal. In the Brazilian case it is the Secretariat of Logistics and Information Technology/MPOG.
  • To join the collective environment, the original developer should submit a proposal through which confirms it is legally and technically qualified to participate in the collective environment and that its solution is in the public interest. This will be evaluated by the coordination of the environment and will be screened by the host entity of the portal.

Today the BPS Portal has over 60,000 members and 34 solutions / communities in diverse areas, from integrated management of local small and medium municipalities (e-Cities) to the middleware for interactive digital television (Ginga). The IPS project aims to replicate this experience in partner countries.

UNDP’s International Public Software Programme

The IPS project proposes to help in the formation of national Public Software portals in the Latin America and the Caribbean. These will be based on the Brazilian experience but adapted to the needs and characteristics and legal aspects of each country, following the above listed specifications of the basic model.

Requirements present in the distribution model adopted by the BPS and IPS do not conflict in any way with the rights and freedoms specified in the GPL II, which is the compulsory licensing solution for any participant in the model. This already provides to society as a whole broader access to what was developed. But the concept of public software recommended in this document involves more than just code release: it implies a shared commitment for the development, continuity of solutions and knowledge sharing in the use of applications. Without such factors and guarantees, the public sector, the main focus of the projects, will feel inhibited in the adoption of the solutions offered, because of the risks posed and weaknesses that exist in the standard distributions of FOSS softwares.

Software Publico Specificities

Anyone can use softwares available under the terms of GPL II, but those who want to participate in the larger context of the IPS model subject to common rules. If these rules are not working, they must work for their change and improvement. This is not a static model. Growth and sustainability can only be acheived within a dynamic of change to be managed collectively by the coordinators of the participating communities. The conditions for participation in the model do not restrict themselves to a licensing, but to the agreement with the conditions established by the members of the Public Software community of which you agree to take part of. While the GPL is a statement of cession (copyleft), participation in public software models is a commitment to a common work program

Due to the openness of the model, institutions not linked to the direct public administration, such as academia and the private sector, approached the coordination of the BPS Portal to offer solutions in areas public interest areas in order to expand the scope of their communities and also their sphere of business in service providing.

Because of all these advances, the concept of Public Software, used by BPS and IPS projects go beyond the definition that a Public Software would be any software developed by a state institution and licensed with a GPL. The concept came to represent a commitment for distribution of software solutions focused on the public interest where the GPL licensed code and the brand/name integrate with a practice sharing and development environment directed for public use. Listed below are four aspects that characterize the proposed PS model to be adopted by the IPS:

  • Production: focus on sharing of knowledge. Technical (development) and practice (the actual implementation of solutions) communities have the same level of importance. Participation of technical experts, civil service managers, private sector, civil society and individuals are all welcome
  • Technological: the mandatory use of portals and repositories and dissemination of basic technology products such as an Application Programming Interface (API) for integration of the international repository with local portals that choose to use a different development framework
  • Social Impact: the carrying out of studies for the analysis of the social impact of solutions provided by the PS projects will be part of the IPS agreements with the countries. Issues to be considered: encouraging SMEs, access to public services, better efficiency of the sectors involved and overall increase in the quality of life of the communities where the PS solutions are applied. The definition of efficient indicators for these is part of the IPS project.
  • Legal: the carrying out of studies of the legal background in order to assure that the release of software developed with government (public) resources as FOSS (GPL II) are compliant with local legislation.


We can conclude then that the Public Software model as proposed by the IPS and BPS projects does not in any way interfere with the basic concepts of FOSS and one or all of the following descriptions may define it:

  • An innovative distribution procedure.
  • A knowledge sharing and distribution platform.
  • A proposal for international cooperation for e-governance.
  • An initiative for fostering the use of Information and Communication Technologies for Development.

Co-written by Corinto Meffe, Fausto dos Anjos Alvim  & Raul Zambrano

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