Recently, however, the VA embraced open source as a strategy for VistA enhancement. It hired the Informatics Applications Group, or Tiag for short, to create a not-for profit corporation, the Open Source Electronic Health Record Agent, to oversee the program.
The VA’s aim is to use open-source to accelerate improvements to VistA, ultimately for veterans’ benefit.
Without doubt, though, the VA action will add legitimacy to those prior open-source VistA development efforts as well as attract new VistA developers to the community.
This week, Tiag posted a recommendation (PDF) that all new software code contributed by outsiders to the OSEHRA/VistA open-source project use the “commercial friendly” Apache 2.0 open-source license. The “technical lead” in drafting the recommendation was Seong Ki Mun, a professor at Virginia Tech , director of its Arlington Innovation Center for Health Research and acting CEO of OSEHRA.
Two pioneers of the VistA open-source community—the not-for-profit WorldVistA organization, and for-profit Medsphere Systems, both founded in 2002—use versions of the general public license, or GPL, for their open-source VistA EHR versions.
The rub is that the Apache 2.0 license proposed by Mun for OSEHRA and the GPL licenses used by WorldVistA and Medsphere are legally “incompatible.”
That means if OSEHRA adopts Mun’s recommendation, WorldVistA and Medsphere, both with healthcare provider organizations using their EHR products, either will conform their future software contributions to Apache (Mun’s position), or will go it alone, creating separate—or forked—versions of open-source VistA from that to be developed by OSEHRA.
Forking should “be discouraged,” Mun declared in the white paper. Nevertheless, Mun said that OSEHRA “should not adopt GPL” because its code-sharing requirement “discourages commercial vendors from participation” and “limits commercial interests.”
But Mun is conflating commercial and proprietary software, according to open-source blogger Fred Trotter, who called out the error in a critique of Mun’s white paper. Trotter points out that Red Hat, a successful commercial purveyor of the Linux operating system, “lives and dies by” GPL in the Linux kernel.
What GPL prohibits, and Apache allows, is a commercial vendor to create and keep separate from the common code base its own proprietary packages of software code. Thus, both GPL and Apache allow for commercialization of VistA, but as Trotter writes, “It is not the ‘commercialness’ of companies that is limited by the GPL, it is their ‘proprietary-ness.’”
Mun wrote, “The potential for forking is a necessary condition for maintaining a healthy open-source community, since it gives bargaining power to community contributors against potential abuse or lack of cooperation from the custodial agent”—in this case, OSEHRA.
We’ll discuss some of the implications of that position in my next post.
Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn.