1. The Principal Secretary,
General Education Department,
Government of Kerala,
2. The Director of Public Instruction,
3. State Council of Education Research and Training,
SCERT Buildings, Poojapura. P. O.,
4. Executive Director,
IT@ School Project,
State Project Office, Ground Floor,
SCERT Buildings, Poojapura. P. O.,
5. The Secretary to the Government of Kerala,
Information Technology Department,
Memorandum Submitted by Members of the Free Software Users' Group, Kochi, Maruti Vilas Lodge, Canon Shed Road, Cochin - 682011.
Ref:- IT@School Project - choice of software and syllabus -
We, the undersigned, have recently come across what the government calls the IT@SCHOOL project. We are extremely happy and fully endorse the objectives and intention behind the scheme, in so far as the government has made it possible to bring IT education to even very poor students in our State, at a nominal cost. We are very much proud of our government in that our government is one of the few governments in the world which has made it possible to bring IT education to the masses at a very nominal cost as envisaged in the IT@SCHOOL scheme.
However, we submit that implementation of the scheme as it is would harm the long term interests of our State, the general public and the Country. There would be very serious violation of our citizens' basic legal and constitutional rights. We understand that the government has made a few changes within the past few weeks to the syllabus and textbooks. But, we submit that the changes do not go far enough to redress the real issues involved in the matter. We wish, by this letter, to bring to your kind attention, the following issues and request you to remedy them without further delay.
1. Choice of Software and Commercial Fairness
1.1 We find the manner in which the software to be used at the schools is chosen, and manner in which it is chosen, to be disturbing. The syllabus has prescribed software by brand. It is regrettable that the government has not framed or adopted any guidelines or standards to be followed for choosing the software. The IT@SCHOOL project patronises and prefers one brand over other products; and in making this choice, the government has not followed due procedure laid down by law. We submit that this is not fair to creators and vendors of other software.
1.2 We gather that there are nearly 2600 high schools in Kera1a. The scheme envisages that each school should have 10 computers within next three years. Cost of prescribed operating system is approximately Rs. 3500/- per computer. The application software specified in the syllabus costs another Rs. 25,000/- per computer. At the prescribed ratio of 10 computers per school, by the year 2004, this will cost the schools an astounding Rs. 74,10,00,000/- (rupees seventy four crores and ten lakhs) - (Rs. 3,500 + Rs. 25,000 = Rs. 28,500 x 10 computers per school x 2600 schools).
1.3 Even if the said corporation whose software is chosen provides software free of cost, we submit that the government should not include it in the syllabus. Providing schools or other educational institutions software at little or no cost, while the same software is sold at very high prices in the open market is a marketing trick. The corporation resorts to such tactics in order to reap benefits of having a pool of people who are familiar with their software packages and thus form an assured customer base, either as users themselves or as potential skilled employees. We are aware that equipping our students and teachers with skills in computer usage is the primary aim of the project.
1.4 But, by confining students' training to a particular brand of software, the government would be giving undue preference to a particular vendor and their software thus discriminating against vendors of other software. Thus, even by providing software free of cost to the schools, the said company will make immense profits, to the detriment of public welfare and without any corresponding gain to the public, state or institutions. You will recognise that this policy discriminates against vendors of other software and in favour of a particular corporation. You would be aware that this is discrimination and unconstitutional.
1.5 The Supreme Court has laid down in several cases that the government shall be fair and equitable in choosing beneficiaries of government activities. The IT@SCHOOL project involves expenses from funds; created with authorization from government and in pursuance of and compliance with guidelines and rules issued by the State government or other statutory authorities in exercise of statutory power vested in them by the Kerala Education Act. Hence, the government has an obligation to act fairly and equitably while choosing software for school curriculum. But, regrettably, we find that there is not even an attempt to act fairly in the matter of prescribing syllabus and curriculum for the IT@SCHOOL project.
1.6 We also would like to point out that Government's approach would result in compelling not only schools, but also the general public to purchase software from this particular vendor in the future, because people have been denied access to software from other vendors. This would create a monopoly in favour of that corporation and expose the public, the State and the nation to the mercy of a single company. It may be recalled that this particular corporation has been found guilty of unfair, monopolistic and restrictive trade practices in its own country.
1.7 We note that in G.O. (MS) No.297/2001/G. Edn. dated 29.09.2001 the government has specified that 'Volume licensing terms of necessary software will be negotiated with software manufacturers'. This is a very regrettable approach on part of the government. Negotiations can be only between persons or bodies having equal bargaining power. A prerequisite of equal bargaining power is that that both parties have the freedom of choice. But, when schools are compelled to purchase a particular brand because it is prescribed in the syllabus, the schools have no real choice and hence, no real negotiating power. Thus the concept of negotiation looses relevance.
2. Government Should Specify Standards Rather Than Products or Brands
2.1 The computer and the software which drives it are the communication media of the future. Even today, digital media has replaced traditional forms of communication in several situations. Digital communication interposes machine language (language of the computer) between humans. Human language, whether it be the spoken word, the written verse, or visual symbols all are converted to machine language by the computer which originates communication and are converted back to human understandable form by the computer which receives the communication. It is therefore a prerequisite of free and unhindered computerised communication between humans that computers understand languages 'spoken' by each other. Language used by one machine need not be the same as the language used by another. But, different machines/computers can understand each other using internationally accepted standards. Such standards need to be openly available and accessible to the public. While prescribing software for schools, the government has an important role of ensuring that software prescribed or selected conforms to such standards.
2.2 The corporation whose brands and products are prescribed does not publish standards used in their software. Even in respect of standards recognized by the entire industry, this particular corporation is known to create its own variations outside the scope of such universal standards. Such extensions to the standards are not published by this corporation and information/files/ programs using such extensions cannot be accessed except with applications or programs available exclusively from that particular corporation. This practice compels not only users of products from that vendor, but also other people who are forced to interact with users of that vendor's products (like the government and schools, in this case) to purchase software from this particular vendor alone. This situation is known as 'vendor lock-in' or 'vendor dependence'. This is contrary to public interest and harmful to the society in the long run. The government should not create an atmosphere which facilitates such dependence. It is essential that the government and schools insist on using software which uses and conforms to freely available standards so that people who interact with them are not forced to use software from the same vendor as the government or the schools.
2.3 It should be realised that vendor dependence is extremely expensive for the government in the long term. We will elaborate on this issue below.
2.4 We wish to bring to the attention of the Government that several software packages, both applications as well as operating systems, which conform to industry-wide standards, adopted and maintained by independent vendors - both non profit organizations and for profit commercial bodies (individuals and corporations) are available. A list of vendors who sell such products for a price is available at web sites like, http://www.gnu.org/directory/ and http:// forum.gnu.org.in/bizdir and, probably, there are other vendors who have not been listed on such sites.
2.5 In these circumstances, by prescribing that software of a particular brand alone shall be used, the Government is cutting off access to a wider choice for itself and the citizens of Kerala and also cutting off the possibility of tremendous savings of money for itself and the citizens of Kerala. In the long run, such restrictions on the ability to choose would ultimately restrict ability of computers and people to interact with each other through computers.
3. The Issue of Copyright
3.1 We notice that the government has been very meticulous in prescribing the hardware to be used along with indicative prices. However, there is no provision for software costs in the estimates and accounting guidelines published as part of the IT@SCHOOL scheme.
3.2 This approach will encourage schools to make unauthorized copies of software. The law as it stands now prohibits copying of software by schools without permission. Therefore, the government has a duty to ensure that rules / regulations / guidelines framed by it facilitates compliance with law by the persons or bodies targeted by such rules or guidelines. We submit that the government's approach of not providing sufficient funds for purchase of software will bring the schools into conflict with the law relating to Copyrights and the harsh license enforcement programs by the software corporations. Ultimately, this will expose school managements, (including government run schools) to litigation, including criminal action by copyright holders of software prescribed. Hence, it is essential that software to be used in schools are made available under a license which incorporates freedom of use.
3.3 Management of software licenses is a complex task, requiring constant legal supervision. Large corporations vending proprietary software enforce their license restr-ictions harshly - even claiming that the visual appearance of the screen is copyrighted. Thus, even use of 'screen shots' in textbooks without appropriate permissions will invite action from the copyright owners against the gover-nment and its agencies responsible for preparing text books.
3.4 We understand that the government has not received any consent from the copyright holders to use screen shots in the text books. We would like to point out that certain corporations have initiated litigation in other foreign countries, claiming copyright over screen appearance. We do not want our government to be put in such embarrassing situations by uninformed use of inappropriate software and technology. We hope and trust that the government will see reason and exclude proprietary software from the school curriculum.
3.5 We also would like to point out that due to inappropriate handling of licensing issues, several schools in the United States of America have, in recent past, found that they are unable to answer Microsoft Corporation's request for an account of licenses for the number of computers used by them. For example, in 1994-95, some schools in Los Angeles have had to pay fines of up to $300,000 (equivalent of Rupees 1,44,00,000/- or One crores and forty four lakhs) in fines and to further spend an identical amount for purchasing actual licenses. This was in addition to the legal expenses and the embarrassment of facing public humiliation.
3.6 In this context, we request the government to recall the recent problems faced by the highly successful and popular 'FRIENDS' project. If the concerned agencies were adequately aware of issues relating to copyright and licensing, the unfortunate incidents of executives and officers of quasi-governmental organizations being arrested by the police and detained in custody, like petty thieves could have been avoided. We would like to point out that unless the government is careful, teachers in our schools too might be faced with a similar situation.
3.7 The government or the schools should not have to constantly worry about licensing issues and should be free to teach. Imposing proprietary software on the schools means pushing the school administrations and managements into the difficult and tricky area of license management. The schools should be free to choose software of their choice; but if the government wishes to impose its own choice on the schools, the government has an obligation to ensure that no present or future burden, economic, social or technological, is imposed on the school managements.
4. The Prescription Stifles Development of Software Skills
4.1 If our students are to really understand and learn programming and develop software skills, they should learn not only to use computers, but also understand why they function the way they do. This involves learning programing skills. To learn programing, students should have access to source code of the software they use. We trust that you have studied and understood the terms under which the corporation, whose software is currently prescribed for study, licenses its software. It should be emphasised that they do not provide access to source code, which is a a closely guarded secret. By insisting on programs from a particular company, the government is denying our students an opportunity to learn about programs and software development skills. We need not repeat that this policy would not help our community in the long run.
4.2 We do appreciate that the IT@SCHOOL project may not involve teaching programing skills to the students; but at a young age, the students are curious, and are apt to explore and examine the systems they are using. This is an excellent opportunity to introduce students to software programing. Providing access to source code to the students who display curiosity about understanding software programing would channelise their creativity into development of useful skills. On the contrary, denying access to source code might result in such students being frustrated, and turning to unproductive activities.
5. Proprietary Software Is More Expensive Over Long Term
5.1 It goes without saying that all software packages, including those prescribed in the syllabus are covered by copyright. The corporation which provides the prescribed packages charges license fees for each computer on which their software is used. Moreover, the Operating system and the application software packages (MS Word, as per the syllabus) has to be purchased separately, and separate licenses have to be obtained for each machine / computer. It should be recalled that the government is aiming to have computers in all the schools in Kerala by the year 2004 at the rate of between 6 and 15 computers per school, in all the more than 2600 schools in Kerala.
5.2 We have already pointed out that this would cost the state over 74 crore rupees in terms of license fees alone at the modest rate of 10 computers per school. The government has actually prescribed use of up to 15 computers per school. Thus, there would be more than 41,600 computers in schools alone by the year 2004, and either the schools, or the government, stands to lose, and the corporation actually stands to gain, not merely rupees 74 crores, but sums far in excess of Rs. 118,56,00,000/- (Rupees one hundred and eighteen crores, fifty six lakhs) on license fees alone.
5.3 Apart from initial license costs, the government / schools would have to incur recurring expenditure on software maintenance and upgrades. This happens because however well developed a software package is, it is always prone to defects known as bugs. Since source code for the software prescribed in the syllabus is not available, the schools will be dependent on the same vendor for upgrades and 'bug fixes' and also have to periodically pay them for such services. The vendor would therefore be in a position to extract more money from the government or the schools in the long run. However, when source code for software is made available, with universal permission to modify and redistribute, it is possible for anybody with the necessary skills to provide after sales services, thus resulting in competition and consequent cost savings.
5.4 On the other hand, creators of free software have explicitly permitted modification and redistribution of their programs, without any royalties. Therefore, the schools would not be tied down to after sales service from vendors who created the software alone. When software is available with support from several vendors, this would naturally keep the prices low. Yet another difficulty with frequent upgrades is that the government / schools would be compelled to replace hardware too, (like processors, hard disks, memory modules, etc.) thus further adding to total costs.
5.5 In these circumstances, the government's insistence on the schools purchasing proprietary, non-standard, and expensive software cannot be justified on any account, and makes no commercial sense.
6.1 It is very surprising to notice that the documents relating to the IT@SCHOOL project mandates usage of Windows 98 operating system pre-installed on all computers purchased by the schools. Windows 98 is a very much outdated product. Several newer versions of that operating system have been issued and are currently in market. Very fact that you are insisting on outdated products shows that the government has acted in a very arbitrary and capricious manner in prescribing the syllabus and choosing the topics to be studied.
6.2 Software is subject to very rapid changes. Average life cycle of software packages is between six to eighteen months. However, syllabi in Kerala are reviewed only once in four to five years. This would result in our students having to study obsolete software packages for a long time in between syllabus reviews. In view of such rapidly changing product versions it is most inappropriate for the government to prescribe software by brands or versions in school syllabus. We hope that the government will desist from insisting on branded software on this grounds alone.
7.1 It is seen from one of the documents issued in connection with the project that government is of the opinion that no trained manpower is available for software other than what is prescribed in the syllabus. If that be so, we fail to understand why several thousands of teachers were trained over a long time, spending several lakhs of rupees. They could have been equally well trained in free software packages.
7.2 We wish to assure you that ample trained manpower capable of handling free software and also training school teachers and trainers to teach in the IT@SCHOOL project is available in Kerala itself. Lists of businesses, companies or individuals willing to provide support for free software is available at web sites like http://forum.gnu.org.in/ bizdir and http://www.gnu.org/directory.
7.3 We would also like to point out that free software is neither 'freeware' nor 'alternative software' as sought to be made out in the 'IT@SCHOOL Project - an Approach Paper'. 'Freeware' is software available at no monetary cost. 'Free software' on the other hand, is about freedom, not cost. 'Alternatives' are required when we are compelled to use one particular thing or product. We are not aware of any compulsion on the government to use any particular software. This being so, we fail to understand such terminology used by the government.
7.4 We wish to clarify that by the term 'Free Software' used above, we are referring to 'freedom', as in 'swatantryam' - not 'soujanyam'. By freedom, we mean: (1) freedom to run the program, for any purpose; (2) freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to the user's needs; (3) The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour; (4) The freedom to modify the program, and release improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. It may be appreciated that access to the source code is a precondition for enjoying freedoms 2 and 4.
7.5 We trust that the government will not be misled by wrong terminology and misconceptions. We wish to point out that governments of several developed countries have successfully adopted free software for various purposes and have openly acknowledged advantages of using free software. We may also point in this context, the experience of the Kerala Bureau of Industrial Promotion, which, in association with the Free Software Foundation of India, is developing software in Malayalam. This is possible only because they are using free software - software created by others and made available to the general public with the 'swatantryam' to legally use, modify and redistribute the same for the greater common good.
7.6 In case the government has any doubts about free software, we and other persons sharing our views on this issue, or our representatives will be most happy to meet and show the government how to go about preparing the necessary framework and guidelines, including preparation of course material, syllabus, hardware and software specifications, etc.
7.7 We trust that the government would view the issue not merely as one of cost or preferring one software or company over other. The basic question is one of freedom of choice for each individual and an entire community. What is at stake is not merely commercial rights or expenses of a few rupees. It is the question of liberty and independence for the public.
We request you to consider all these issues and review the syllabus and other various notifications issued in pursuance of the IT@SCHOOL scheme, and hereby request the government to:-
A. discontinue references to brand names and proprietary software in the syllabus, guidelines, notifications and other requirements under the IT@SCHOOL project.
B. frame rules requiring the use of software which does not require payment of any kind of royalties and implements open, industry wide standards in the schools and educational institutions in the state.
C. frame rules requiring that source code for all software and operating systems, applications and programs used in the school curriculum be published or otherwise made available to the public, students, schools and government.
D. frame rules requiring that only such software which is permitted to be modified and maintained by third parties shall be used in schools and educational institutions.
Dated this the 16th day of November, 2002.
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.