EU funding could hurt open source licensing, critics say

Industry reps criticize the protectionist nature of the EU's Horizon 2020 funding scheme

The Pirate Party's representative in the European Parliament has warned that a new European Union funding package for IT innovation could seriously damage open source licensing.

The European Commission unveiled the Horizon 2020 funding plan on Wednesday, including €13.7 billion (US$18.3 billion) for innovation in key areas such as information and communication technologies, nanotechnologies, biotechnology and space.

However, the proposal effectively states that any resulting product must be promoted in Europe first. Article 41 of the proposal states that "with regard to results which are generated by participants that have received E.U. funding, the Commission may object to transfers of ownership or to grants of an exclusive licence, to third parties established in a third country not associated to Horizon 2020."

This renders open source licensing impossible, said Member of the European Parliament Christian Engstrom.

"The essence of open source is that you share everything freely and that is simply not compatible with Article 41 of the proposal. I feel very disappointed in the protectionist nature of the "Europe First" element. The ability to collaborate on a massive scale is the steam engine of this century," he said.

Engstrom's comments drew support from representatives of Siemens, Intel, Dell and IBM attending an event organized by OpenForum on Thursday morning, as well as from the campaign group European Digital Rights (EDRi).

International intellectual property law expert Robin Jacob described the Article 41 rule as "unworkable." The rules could also prevent international companies from collaborating with researchers to develop products in the later stages of development.

Free Software Foundation Europe President Karsten Gerloff said the current proposal is highly problematic for free software. "It's not uncommon to ask free software developers to assign their copyright to someone else. Often, projects may use an independent foundation as the long-term guardian of their copyright. Most organizations of this kind are established in the U.S. (though FSFE offers such a tool for copyright assignment as well)," Gerloff said.

"In its current form, Horizon 2020 would require developers to ask the Commission for permission before assigning their copyright. Though this is probably an unintended side effect, this requirement would clearly get in the way of the Horizon 2020 goal of promoting European competitiveness. After all, free software is key to enabling competition in the European software market. Free software is a market leader or primary competitor in most areas of software, allowing everyone to compete on the merits of their work," Gerloff added.

He suggested that the Commission could simply provide an exception to paragraph 41.3 waiving the requirement for permission if results were distributed under a free software license.

The plan also drew criticism from U.S. companies who feared it was protectionist.

But the E.U.'s Innovation Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, said that the provision in the proposal "should not be taken as the E.U. or the Commission putting forward a protectionist policy." Conditions will only be imposed on grant agreements where high investment or European strategic interests are involved, and E.U. research funding will remain "the most open in the world," she said.

The funding proposal must be approved by the European Parliament and ministers from E.U. member states before it can be adopted.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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