Legal status gaslighting by international agency

I am blogging a small incident because I think the underlying pattern will become more common as interest in open source gains prominence within the wider domain of national energy systems analysis. I also think a commitment to transparency includes a commitment accuracy — and particular when the underlying discussions relate to public policy analysis.

This post involves the legal status of the MAED‑2 software developed in‑house by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This tooling is used to project future demand profiles. A user manual is available:

Over the last weeks I have had intermittent traffic on this topic with four interested parties. One researcher at a COP‑27 side‑event described MAED‑2 as “open source” but when asked for details, admitted that this was an innocent error. Notwithstanding, no correction was issued. Then, following some discussions on the openmod list as to whether a selection process applied, I emailed the IAEA for details of the software license provided. The IAEA responded with the following release form (received 10 January 2023):

That document clearly offers the software under very restrictive terms and certainly implies that all applicants are subject to screening. Two signatures are required, including the head of the applicant organization. Moreover the IAEA “reserves the right to charge” under certain circumstances. And I am not sure if I would get just an executable or the source code as well.

I later had contact with an IAEA staff member (LS) on the legal circumstances surrounding MAED‑2 at a recent private meeting. LS claimed the tooling is “available [to anybody] for free”. I then pointed to the release form I received, to which LS then claimed that this form was merely to collect statistics on usage and not legally material.

So that is where the matter stands. And hence my decision to blog my experiences in the interests of transparency and accuracy. This posting records my opinions on the matter.

I would welcome contact from the IAEA but only if the facts can be agreed upon first. Moreover, I would be interested in hearing if anything in this posting needs correcting in any way. And if the IAEA really wishes to make their software transparent, usable, and reusable, they should consider uploading the codebase to a public repository under an OSI‑approved license (OSI being the Open Source Initiative.)

In many respects, I don’t think this kind of non‑open tooling presents much of a threat. I say that because if the functionality is useful to this community, the code will be developed more rapidly and more robustly than in‑house development can match, even for multilateral organizations. Indeed, there are already some open‑source examples.

Finally, I often strike this general kind of response from large scientific institutions, incumbent NGOs, government agencies, and international organizations. Indeed, I normally receive just a set of assertions without backup or analysis and without reference to any of the legal details I had raised. Sometimes I receive assurances that apply personally and not generally. All of which is why I headed this post “gaslighting”. R


@robbie.morrison, thanks for sharing the MAED-2 case. I think it’s really important for the open modelling community to clarify publicly. How else people will learn about it?

  • The Nigerian Integrated Energy Planning Tool was sold by McKinsey & co. as great open-source tool at a launch event, however, there is not even code accessible making it only an open accessible interface.

  • More recently ECMWF signed a project collaboration with DLR. In the public release of the collaboration they point out how great open-source and open data is and mentioned that they looking forward to work with EnDAT & REMIX, both used for energy planning. To my knowledge these tools are promised for over two years to be open-source but haven’t made it…

I think neither of the examples is bad in terms of being closed source, maybe even the opposite is true and the tools do a great job and help people. However, I think it’s not fair to mislead people with selling “freedom”, when they actually receive some time in “prison”.

Did someone else observe such falsely labelled open source or open data projects?

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I would normally be more circumspect about naming possible transgressors in public, but I have spent so much time getting run around that I need to be more aggressive in that regard.

The following topic is useful in relation to public data. It is not about non‑open but otherwise clear licensing, it is about unclear, ambiguous, and/or contradictory licensing terms, including legally debatable terms:

On that note, the threshold for 96/9/EC database protection now requires exposure to commercial risk. And additional contractual terms cannot override the statutory exceptions that are provided under copyright law by various European member states. Similar provisions exist in other jurisdictions.

There is one major official UK energy system model (that I won’t name because the facts are not entire clear to me) that was going to be published as open for some years now (yet I still cannot find the repo using a web search or by interrogating Software Heritage).

The TIMES model is now on GitHub with its license listed as “Unknown, GPL-3.0 licenses found”. The REUSE project offers good practice guidance in this respect, so there is really no excuse for getting license notifications wrong. Also just 3 closed issues reported so hardly an active open source project (and hence I won’t bother filing a new bug report).

Also worth recalling that the free and open source software movement more generally have invested huge effort in protecting the FOSS brand from false claims and non‑compliant behavior — as well as from copyright and patent trolls.

Finally, there are some open source claims that are indeed inadvertent mistakes.

UPDATE: 9 Feb 2023: The TIMES model on GitHub does have a complete GPL‑3.0‑or‑later license in a file named COPYING.txt which seems to be masked by a poorly structured file named LICENSE.txt. If this is indeed the case, the fix is trivial. The developers should also consider providing a explicit exception covering the use of the proprietary GAMS interpreter, rather than relying on implicit consent.