DoD promises to balance push for open architectures with companies’ property rights

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As part of the newly-unveiled 3.0 edition of the Pentagon’s Better Buying Power initiative, officials say they are making a concerted push for more open architectures, and for owning the data rights to the systems they buy where it’s appropriate. But DoD is trying to reassure companies that doesn’t mean it will be trying to demand ownership of their most valued proprietary technology.

In last year’s annual Defense authorization bill, Congress ordered the...

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As part of the newly-unveiled 3.0 edition of the Pentagon’s Better Buying Power initiative, officials say they are making a concerted push for more open architectures, and for owning the data rights to the systems they buy where it’s appropriate. But DoD is trying to reassure companies that doesn’t mean it will be trying to demand ownership of their most valued proprietary technology.

In last year’s annual Defense authorization bill, Congress ordered the department to draw up a plan to move toward open systems approaches in key mission areas across its acquisition portfolio, buying more systems in modules, with the data rights to the interfaces between them well understood — and owned — by the government. For IT systems in particular, any system not using an open architecture will need a written justification.

But defense officials acknowledge there’s a fine line between owning the interfaces and demanding the rights to companies’ hard-earned intellectual property.

Katrina McFarland, the assistant secretary of Defense for acquisition, said DoD’s been working on the issue since long before the congressional mandate, and that the department’s approach shouldn’t deter companies from using proprietary technology to differentiate their bids from their competitors.

“We’ve had open architecture guidebooks out since 2010, and we’re not chasing IP rights for everything even though that seems to be a natural fear that’s out there, because I can’t claim that all the understanding of our policies exists in all of our workforce,” she told an AFCEA Northern Virginia luncheon Friday. “But all we’re interested in is architecting our systems so that they’re open, and in order to do that we need the interface rights. So you can keep your black boxes, but I want to know how the data’s exchanged for plug and play. We also need it for the purposes of depot and support and sustainment. So we’re going to look for specific rights too, as we did for example with the new tanker.”

Review led by the Army

In the Better Buying Power update DoD issued on Thursday, officials said one of their objectives was to let companies with a superior technological approach to any component of a system “win their way” onto an acquisition program rather than buying systems that are managed in perpetuity by a single vendor, and to be able to replace individual modules without redesigning an entire system.

The Army’s director for system of systems engineering and integration is leading the open systems initiative. The guidance tells the team to analyze how successfully existing open systems initiatives are being applied across DoD, how well program managers understand modular open systems architectures, and what barriers are standing in the way of their implementation.

Also, the guidance says the team should take a comprehensive look at the approach DoD programs have taken to acquiring intellectual property from companies over the last five years and how those decisions have affected individual procurements for good or ill.

Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said he wants to ensure that the government’s interests in buying competitive systems is protected while also respecting industry’s property rights.

“I think we’re doing a much better job of that. Once upon a time, I think we didn’t pay much attention to this, frankly, and we didn’t manage it carefully,” he said. “But we’ve done a lot to educate our workforce going all the way back to Better Buying Power 1.0. So I don’t think we’re perfect yet, but I think we actually moved the needle in the right direction. Now, industry doesn’t always like this, because it means that we’re inserting competition in a place where they’d like to be sole source in some cases. So we’re trying to strike the right balance there. But I don’t think we’ve gone too far. I think we’re in about the right place.”

But Kendall wants to be able to back that assertion up with data. So the open systems review team is due to report back to him by July, and then by December, each of the military services and the assistant secretaries of Defense will need to have final guidance and service-specific implementation plans in place for making greater use of open systems without impinging on companies’ core property rights..

Reducing vendor lock-in for radio waveforms

“We can’t require people to sell us intellectual property. It’s their property,” he said. “But it’s much more attractive to us to buy something where we do control the interfaces and we can go out and do competition for subsystems later. So we also need to think about the life-cycle cost, and whether we want to be able to break out components and bid for them separately in sustainment. If we’re going to do software upgrades, we’d like to have modular software and control the interfaces there. So if there’s intellectual property associated with those things, we have a strong interest in acquiring it. And it makes an offer more attractive to us if those intellectual property rights would not constrain us going forward.”

But the department says there are also some selected areas within its acquisition portfolio where it believes it needs to document not only the interfaces between systems, but some of the key technologies that make its systems work. McFarland said one example is radio waveforms, an area in which the department is beginning to shun proprietary technology in the interest of interoperability.

“In the ISR communications space, we’re working through Air Force to identify the Predator, tactical and Vortex Native Waveforms,” McFarland said. “That’s because we’ve consolidated waveform management from an acquisition level in my shop and we’re opening up all of those artifacts to full and open. In order to do that, you need to understand and own the waveform, and we have a repository where we own the rights to them and can distribute them to all users. People in the UAS area can use them to compete, and they’ll be available to all users, commercial and others.”

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