Should all publicly funded software be open source?

by Bruce Stewart

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This Salon article looks at some of the hurdles university researchers are having to get over to release their code with open source licenses, and the ramifications of the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows universities doing publicly funded research to own and sell the intellectual property they produce.

Dr. Steven Brenner, the leader of a computational genomics research group at UC Berkeley, points out that many academic bioinformatics researchers may not realize the legal risk they face by contributing to open source software projects, and that some biological open source software is probably being produced illegally. Brenner is one of the founders of the Bioperl project, and he didn't want to give this up to take a position with UC Berkeley. Brenner was able to successfully renegotiate his UC employment contract so that he could continue to contribute to open source projects, but the process was long and tedious, and it was apparent to him that he was charting new ground for the university's licensing office. So Brenner got together with colleagues at the Open Bioinformatics Foundation, the umbrella organization for all the bio* projects, to help promote awareness of these issues, which he believes academic researchers don't understand as well as their industry counterparts do.

Here at O'Reilly we're strong supporters of open source software, and I sat up and took notice when I saw another group of bioinformatics researchers promoting a petiton to require all publicly funded software projects to carry open source licenses. I admit my first reaction to this was that it made perfect sense--after all, if we're paying for the code, we should get to use and see it, right?

As the debate over the petition heated up on the O'Reilly bioinformatics discussion list, I realized that the issue wasn't that simple. One poster in particular, an open source contributor and Open Bioinformatics Foundation member named Andrew Dalke, made especially convincing and eloquent arguments for why this requirement might not be such a good idea.

If these topics interest you--and they certainly apply to a far wider audience than just the bioinformatics crowd--stay tuned. Next week we'll have articles on the O'Reilly Network covering both sides of this issue. Jason E. Stewart and Harry Mangalam are coauthors of the petition, and they'll tell you why they think you should support their efforts to require open source licenses for code generated by public research. Andrew Dalke presents an opposing viewpoint, with lots of interesting reasons for thinking twice about what may initially seem like a "no-brainer".

Ewan Birney will deliver a keynote on Open Source Bioinformatics at the upcoming O'Reilly Bioinformatics Technology Conference. Andrew Dalke will be presenting on Biopython, Steven Brenner will be participating in a panel on Open Data and Open Source, and Jason Stewart will lead a Birds-of-a-Feather session on the petition as well.

Do you think software generated by publicly funded research should be licensed as open source?