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Open Source at Stanford

Open Source Primer for Stanford Software Creators

Stanford Policy
By Copyright Policy, Stanford owns copyright to software created under certain conditions. (See Copyright Policy (RPH 9.2)) Creators are able to put their works in the public domain as long as doing so does not conflict with Stanford’s contractual obligations.

Public Domain
"Public domain" means that no one claims any intellectual property rights for a particular work/technology. Open source and public domain are not the same thing and should not be used interchangeably.

Open Source Licenses
Very briefly, to "open source" software is to make source code available for collaborative development by anyone while the owner still maintains copyright. Depending on the type of agreement, "open source" is essentially a license that allows users to use the software free of charge and may require users to divulge source code and to not enforce any copyright for any derivative work.

There are many kinds of open source licenses, all of which have strings attached to the license. (See open source licenses). Kinds of licenses range from BSD (mostly a permission to use and requirement to give proper attribution, copyright remains with the University) to GPL (all subsequent users must keep derivative software open sourced.) The University does not make any particular recommendations as to which open source license is preferable. If you wish to open source software but do not know which agreement to use, please visit If you still do not know which one to use, we suggest you start with the following questions to determine what it is you would like to achieve by open sourcing the particular software.

Considerations before open sourcing software:
Was the code developed under a sponsored project, or some other sponsorship that would encumber or cause Stanford to "owe" the code to another entity?
Did you incorporate anyone else's code?

  • colleagues?
  • previously open sourced code?
  • any other sources?

In order to open source the code, you must be certain you have the right to do so. (All the contributors should agree on whether or not to open source the software.)

Who can Open Source Stanford-owned software?

Software developed in the course of research at Stanford may be open sourced by:

  • the faculty, as long as doing so does not conflict with any Stanford obligations;
  • students and post-doctoral scholars, with faculty permission;
  • research staff, with faculty permission;
  • staff, with the appropriate departmental approval.

If you wish to open source software, you must be careful that you are only open sourcing Stanford software and no other third party code is embedded in the software.

Options for Stanford Creators

  1. Publish the code. Publication of code with or without a copyright notice is still copyrighted. Third party users should request permission to use the software.
  2. Public Domain the software. Copyright is relinquished under public domained software. Anyone can use the software for any purpose without compensation to the creator.
  3. Open source the software. Commonly used open source licenses are:
    1. Open Source like BSD which allows anyone to use source code for any purpose-commercial, academic, research and only requires acknowledgement (Also Apache, Mozilla)
    2. "Free Software," GPL
    3. Shared source-Solaris, PGP

Considerations for choosing an Open Source License:

  • What are you hoping to achieve?
    • broad adoption in the academic community?
    • is your code synergistic with widely open sourced applications like Linux?
    • broad adoption in industry?
    • continued development by others?
  • What level of access do you want to permit
    • executable?
    • and code?
  • What do you want others to be able to do with the software?
    • modify and come up with other versions or derivatives?
    • create competing software? or incorporate it with their existing products?
  • What do you want others to be able to do with any derivatives?
    • contribute to open source community?
    • bundle and sell as a supported product?
  • Do you want changes or bug fixes sent back to you?
  • Do you want to be able to incorporate these contributions into your next release? If, yes, you will need an assignment from the contributors.

These questions may be the basis for a discussion among the creators of the software.


OTL's "Creator's Guide to Commercializing Copyrighted Work" has detailed information about software licensing options, including Open Source.

Open Source & Research Presentation: talk given in February 2005 for Stanford's OTL & OGC. copies of many open source licenses and other resources. useful tools, especially a series of questions that may help you choose an open source license.