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Creative works on campuses – licensing issues June 19, 2007

Posted by ficial in brain dump, IP issues.
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Fairly recently I wrote a couple of programs for / with some professors here at Williams to assist them with their research and teaching. Not too surprisingly they and I want to be able to share that work with others. If it were just a research paper that would be no problem – there are well established models for ownership, credit, and distribution. With software it gets trickier.

Academia has had a long and happy tradition of sharing resources and information (with great influence in that regard on Net culture). The initial informal sharing systems weren’t well suited to the business world and the internet as it’s grown, and thus arose a number of other schemes (the GPL and Creative Commons being probably the two biggest players these days). Both those seems to work pretty well for people who want to share their work. There are slight changes / additions / options I’d like to see for them (essentially, a protection period that’s slightly more restrictive, after which they revert to the more open licensing), but over all they make me quite happy.

However, they’re only useful if a person actually has the right to license something. In the business world typically whatever a developer creates is owned by the company. Academia doesn’t quite work that way: researchers typically own (IP-wise) the results of their work, professors write textbooks that are theirs and theirs alone, scientific papers are owned by the individual rather than the institution, etc. However, all that precedent is for professors (and students, for that matter). Staff are often placed in a separate category (I think on the theory that we’re paid to do (and sometimes create) things for the institution). I don’t think it’s quite fair, but that’s usually the way it is. So, if I’ve created a program on the job for a professor (or anyone else, for that matter), my best non-lawyer guess is that the college technically owns it. So what does that mean from a licensing perspective? Specifically, who has the right to release (partially or wholly) that program into the public domain?

For lots of academic programming this question never comes up – IT departments share code and technique all the time with out anyone worrying about it. There are two big differences in my situation. First, the audience / user-pool of the application is not other IT people – the sharing is not in the course of working on problems common to all parties but distribution to end users. Second, there’s at lease a remote possibility that this application would be bundled with a textbook, thus allowing a publisher to make money from it (in which case I’d certainly like some kind of compensation/cut – not a huge amount, but something would be nice). So, I talked to our CTO and explained that we had a potentially complicated IP law issue and asked her to contact the college lawyers about it.

I haven’t heard much back yet (it’s been about 6 months since the initial conversation – they’ve been busy with RIAA obnoxiousness), but here’s what I’m hoping will happen:

  • technically the college owns the rights to the work (I’d like the creator to own it and while I think that’s possible, I think not likely), BUT
  • the college assigns those rights to the developer / creator(s) as an incentive (akin to options and bonuses in the business world); the revenue from such a work is miniscule from the colleges perspective, but possibly significant to the individual, and revenue aside the credit counts for a lot
  • regardless, the college has one or more licenses it endorses (probably GPL, CC, or some based on those), from which creators could select appropriate ones for their work

We’ll see what happens….

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