Open Source & Open Data
Open-source software is a type of computer software whose source code is released under an open source license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose.
Open source licenses are software licenses that comply with the open source definition. In brief, they allow software to be freely used, modified, and shared. The Open Source Initiative’s (OSI) definition of open source is recognized by governments internationally as the standard or de facto definition.
Free software and open source software are two terms for the same thing: software released under licenses that guarantee users a certain specific set of freedoms provided users comply with the terms of the license.
Can I restrict how people use an open source licensed program? Can I use an approved open source license and further restrict it for academic use only?
The freedom to use the open sourced software program for any purpose, including some commercial, is part of the open source definition. Open source licenses do not discriminate against fields of endeavor whether commercial or academic, however there are some restrictions on certain Creative Commons licenses. In general, we cannot use an approved open source license and then put additional restrictions restricting it for academic use.
What are the types of open source licenses? What is a copyleft license? How is it different from a permissive license?
There are two main types of open source licenses: copyleft licenses and permissive licenses.
Copyleft refers to open source licenses that allow users to create derivative works but require the users to use the same license as the original work to distribute the new work including the derivatives.
For example, if you develop some source code and release it under a copyleft license, and then someone else modifies that software and distributes their modified version, then this modified version must also be licensed under the same copyleft license (or an upward compatible copyleft license) — including any new code written specifically to go into the modified version. Both the original and the new work are effectively open source; the copyleft license is “viral” or “sharealike” in nature and simply ensures that requirement to open source is perpetuated to all downstream derivatives.
Most copyleft licenses are open source, but not all open source licenses are copyleft. When an open source license is not copyleft, that means software released under that license can be used as part of programs distributed under other licenses, including proprietary (non-open source) licenses. Such licenses are usually called either non-copyleft or permissive licenses.
A permissive license is simply a non-copyleft open source license — one that guarantees the freedoms to use, modify, and redistribute, but that permits proprietary derivative works which do not need to be open sourced.
When should I open source software? What if the software has commercial potential? What open source license should i use?
If the digital innovators feel that the software they developed has commercial potential now or could be commercialized in the future, innovators are advised to submit an invention disclosure on the software and consult with INVO prior to open sourcing the software.
Dissemination or sharing of digital innovation funded under federal research dollars, including software, to the scientific research community is essential to meeting data sharing obligations of federally sponsored research. Open source licensing is one of the mechanisms available to meet these obligations and northwestern university invo can help select an open source license or other mechanisms like academic research licenses to meet our data sharing obligations.
In selecting an open source license, diligence is required. To start it is absolutely critical to determining the copyright ownership of the code, i.e., does Northwestern University own all the copyrights in the code or is ownership shared with other like other universities, companies, or individuals?
Copyright ownership could influence the selection of an open source license. It is also important to determine if all the code was developed at Northwestern by Northwestern employees from scratch or if the code contains some third-party code including open source code or dependencies. Presence of third-party code, especially proprietary code, may restrict the ability to open source software. Presence of third-party open source code, especially third-party open source code subject to copyleft licenses, can be a complex issue and could influence the selection of open source licenses due to license compatibility issues between different open source licenses.
What open source licenses does Northwestern University INVO recommend?
If digital innovators feel that the software they developed has or could have commercial potential, they are advised to submit an invention disclosure on the software and consult with INVO for advice on open sourcing the software.
For Northwestern University-owned software innovations (i.e., software not containing any third-party code or dependencies) with limited commercial potential or research software tools, INVO generally recommends the use of copyleft or permissive licenses which do not have patent license grant clauses. The copyleft licenses that INVO supports for use with source code owned by Northwestern University are:
- GNU General Public License version 2 (GPL-2.0)
- GNU Lesser General Public License version 2.1 (LGPL-2.1) [generally used with software libraries]
INVO does not recommend the use of copyleft licenses that contain implicit patent license grants like the later versions of GNU General Public Licenses like GNU General Public License version 3 (GPL-3.0) or GNU Lesser General Public License version 3 (LGPL-3.0). However, if innovators need to use these license, INVO could consider requests to release copyright ownership to the innovators so that they can use these open source licenses under their personal copyrights. Please contact us for further details.
The popular permissive licenses that INVO recommends are:
Can open source software be commercialized or monetized?
Open source software can be commercialized and monetized. One can sell services based on the code (i.e., sell your time), sell warranties and other assurances, sell customization and maintenance work, license the trademark, etc. There are several business models for commercializing/monetizing open source software. If one is the owner of the original copyrights in open source software, one could also dual license the code under proprietary non-exclusive licenses.
Please contact us if you would like to explore commercialization of Northwestern University-owned open source software.
What is open data?
Open data is the idea that some data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. The goals of the open data movement are similar to the open source movement with software.
When should I use open data? What if the data has commercial potential? What open data license should I use?
If the digital innovators feel that the database/data they developed has commercial potential now or could be commercialized in the future, innovators are advised to submit an invention disclosure on the software and consult with INVO prior to open licensing the database/data.
Dissemination or sharing of digital innovation funded under federal research dollars including databases/data, to the scientific research community is essential to meeting data sharing obligations of federally sponsored research. Open data licensing is one of the mechanisms available to meet these obligations and northwestern university invo can help select an open data license or other mechanisms like academic data use or data sharing agreements to meet our data sharing obligations.
In selecting an open data license, diligence is required, including determining ownership of data, use of third-party data, etc.
If your database contains patent health information (PHI), please contact Northwestern's Institutional Review Board (IRB) Office or compliance at the health system for meeting data protection obligations including HIPAA.
What open data licenses does Northwestern University INVO recommend?
If digital innovators feel that the database/data they developed or collected has or could have commercial potential, they are advised to submit an invention disclosure on the database/data and consult with INVO for advice on open licensing the data. For Northwestern University-owned databases (i.e., databases not containing any third-party data or linked data) with limited commercial potential or research databases, INVO generally recommends the use of Creative Commons licenses.
Creative Commons licenses should not be used with software but can be used with databases since a database is copyrightable (with regards to the compilation). If digital innovators would like to disseminate data to the scientific community but retain commercialization options for the future, they would be advised to use a non-commercial version of the Creative Commons licenses like Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 which would also require creators of derivative works to use the same license. They could further restrict derivative rights completely by using Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0.
What if I want to use open data commons licenses? What if I want to dedicate the database/data to the public domain?
However, please note that these licenses give full commercialization rights to the users. Please contact INVO if you would like to dedicate the database/data to the public domain or use public domain licenses like No Rights Reserved (CC0) or Open Data Commons Public Domain Dedication and License (PDDL).
Please also note that dedication to public domain or use of public domain licenses may not provide attribution.
Still have questions? Please contact INVO.