Intellectual Property

A Quick Guide to Software Licensing for the Scientist-Programmer

Author(s): Jennifer Urban
Year: 2012

Abstract: Computing is ubiquitous in every domain of scientific research. Software is the means by which scientists harness the power of computers, and much scientific computing relies on software conceived and developed by other practicing researchers. The task of creating scientific software, however, does not end with the publication of computed results.  Making the developed software available for inspection and use by other scientists is essential to reproducibility, peer-review, and the ability to build upon others’ work. In fulfilling expectations to distribute and disseminate their software, scientist-programmers are required to be not only proficient scientists and coders, but also knowledgeable in legal strategies for licensing their software. 

Navigating the often complex legal landscape of software licensing can be overwhelming, even for sophisticated programmers. Institutional technology transfer offices (TTOs) exist to help address this need, but due to mismatches in expectations or specific domain knowledge, interactions between scientists and TTO staff can result in suboptimal outcomes. 

As practitioners in the scientific computing and technology law fields, we have witnessed firsthand the confusion and difficulties associated with licensing scientifically generated software. Together, we offer a primer on software licensing with a focus on the particular needs of the scientist-software developer in choosing a software license and engaging with TTOs.