Open Source | Feature

Industry-Funded Software Research Goes Open Source

The idea of attracting a vibrant community of developers is prompting some companies to pursue open source research.

Universities like open source licenses because they allow a community of developers to grow up around efforts such as Sakai or Kuali. But what about large technology companies that fund software research on university campuses? In some cases, it turns out that they prefer open source, too. When Intel launched Science and Technology Centers (ISTC) at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University in 2011, for example, its policy was open source all the way:

"The IP policies and practices within the ISTCs will typically be designed to level the playing field for all of the participants, thereby enhancing cooperation and open collaboration. The preferred IP policy is to conduct open research wherein ISTC researchers, whether from academia or Intel, agree to not file patents and to publish all patentable inventions. All significant software developed in the course of conducting research will be released under an open source license."

Further Reading
Universities are wrestling with the possibilities and pitfalls of making homegrown IT products available beyond their campuses. In "Means of Production," David Raths examines the benefits of the two major options: open source or a commercialized venture.

Matt Hancock, director of the ITSC program office, says that for many years Intel funded smaller academic projects to solve specific problems. But these larger ITSCs, with grants of $2.5 million per year per center, can each support 10 to 15 faculty members and up to 30 students. "We hope to generate enough interest to get other people to pile on and create a broader research community around topics such as cloud computing," he explains. "So we decided to take as open a stance as we could with intellectual property (IP) to make sure others feel comfortable joining. If the IP is closed, then you have to have agreements in place for others to join." A closed IP agreement may be best when you are working on something specific with faculty members, Hancock adds, "but it is not the same type of scalable model."

Companies such as HP, Microsoft, and Intel are starting to think in terms of a longer development timeframe, eschewing gains that can be earned immediately from a specific piece of software, notes Melba Kurman, president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm that advises university technology-transfer offices. She believes open source is a good solution where patents are not critical--and software is the best example of that. "They can take software modules and further refine them," he says. "In that way, open source is more business friendly. It is a new paradigm."

In a recent post on her Tech Transfer 2.0 blog, Kurman listed several other potential benefits of using standard open source licenses for collaborative university/industry research, including:

  • Open sourcing fits nicely with the university's nonprofit, tax-exempt status; in the absence of patents and licensing hurdles, sponsored research results can be made freely available to everyone at a fair market price.
  • By publicly sharing research results, industry/university partners avoid publication delays caused by patent applications.  
  • Mandated open sourcing means no haggling over IP terms between university and company researchers, nor concern about patent rights.
  • The research sponsor can bring in additional companies to sponsor open source consortia, since IP terms don't have to be negotiated for every member company.

Kurman mentions Stanford as an example of a university that does a good job of making its open source policies clear to faculty and staff. It publishes an "Open Source Primer for Stanford Software Creators," describing the different types of licenses and who can open source Stanford-owned software.

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

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