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EDIT:

Let me clarify things and specify my concerns:

  • I wrote a program for my thesis that solved a problem for the target establishment.

  • The establishment now uses the program with my consent but nothing was signed and everything was verbal.

  • I applied for a job and that company now wants to see my program source code because it's relevant to the job I'm applying for.

  • My advisor is directly tied to the establishment using my program. I have notified him and we have scheduled to meet up and talk about it in a few days.

My concerns: ( just want to get more info before my talk with my advisor )

  • Is my program source code still my own? Have I accidentally given up my right to share it? Can my advisor and the establishment prevent me from sharing my source code to the company I'm applying for?

  • The source code is also included in the published thesis I submitted, doesn't that make it open source in a sense? Does that mean neither me or my advisor/establishment can claim ownership or anything of the code?

  • Are things different because my thesis is applied to an actual situation as opposed to a theoretical situation? Like there is a period the thesis isn't made public (open source) like a grace period before it's open to the public?

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    Just to clarify- you're applying for a job with a different employer than the one for whom the code was written? Have you asked your advisor whether there was any intellectual property agreement in place between the university and the establishment for which the code was written? – Brian Borchers Jul 24 '18 at 4:36
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    Now they use the program Please clarify who are they? Do they have permissions to use the program? If they did get the permission, who granted it? – scaaahu Jul 24 '18 at 4:42
  • Please make sure to tell your advisor that you gave the permission to that company to use the program if you have not told him about this yet. – scaaahu Jul 24 '18 at 4:56
  • Maybe you should offer to explain how you did it and possibly describe (not provide) a few relevant snippets. I would not give them the source code. But that's just an opinion. – allo Jul 24 '18 at 7:47
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This can be broken down into two issues:

(1) Can you show the new company your source code/can they ask to see it?

They have only asked to see it, not to use it. Maybe as a way to assess your skill, see if you fit their requirements etc. No problem in sharing this. You could even share a copy of your thesis. If they want to use the code, and say so, you can look into licensing options.

(2) Have you given away your right to share it?

No, because the absence of any written contract works both ways. It is part of your thesis, so it is still formally yours. Until and unless the target establishment tries to copyright it in some form, you have the right to share it.


An exception has been pointed out by David Z - there is a possibility that your advisor's 'tie-up' with the target establishment could constitute a work-for-hire agreement, and this may restrict your freedom to share. If such a case exists, either you or your advisor must be aware of the details and can find suitable redressal. If you were not made aware of this, ignore all concerns and share.


Do get your adviser's consent and guidance anyway, and also check your university policy on IP.

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    I'm not sure if we have sufficient information to conclude that the code wasn't made as a work-for-hire, or something equivalent in EWobble's jurisdiction if that's not the US. I don't think it's likely, it's just that I'm not sure the possibility can be ruled out based on the question alone. – David Z Jul 24 '18 at 9:00
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    The absence of a written contract should rule out the possibility of work-for-hire, unless the adviser had signed one such, and didn't inform OP. In such a case OP wouldn't be allowed to include it in his thesis. In theory yes, different jurisdictions might have different interpretations of contract, but I think having any agreement in writing is fairly universal for this sort of thing. – user153812 Jul 24 '18 at 9:07
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    The university's policy regarding intellectual property should be consulted. – Roland Jul 24 '18 at 10:14
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    @JeffE - What I (and I believe David Z) are delicately hinting at is an unethical scenario where the advisor informally 'sub-contracts' his contractual obligation to a student and possibly keeps the student in the dark. Indeed, Roland's advice is solid. – user153812 Jul 24 '18 at 13:13
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    @user153812 Sure. But if the student is kept in the dark about their advisor's contractual obligations, the student can ethically ignore those obligations. Hence my question. – JeffE Jul 24 '18 at 18:34
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The source code is also included in the published thesis I submitted, doesn't that make it open source in a sense?

The term "open source" has a broader meaning and a more specific meaning. The broader meaning is simply that the source code is available for the public to look at. The more restrictive meaning is that it's been released under an open-source license such as the GPL or a BSD-style license, which gives people the legal ability to do things like modifying it and selling the modified version, or combining it with other code and selling it. Publishing the code as part of your thesis makes it open source in the broader sense, but not in the more restrictive sense.

Since the source code is included in the thesis, I don't understand what the issue would be with showing this prospective employer the code. The issue would be if they want to do things that copyright law wouldn't normally allow them to do: copy it, modify and sell it, or incorporate it into their own code.

Does that mean neither me or my advisor/establishment can claim ownership or anything of the code?

Most likely you own the copyright of the code automatically because you wrote it. That's the way copyright works in most countries these days. Publication has no effect on copyright under most countries' laws these days.

However, even if you think of the code as entirely your creation, your advisor may very well have co-ownership of the code. Even if he never put in a single keystroke, his contributions may qualify him as one of its authors.

There is also a set of complicated legal issues about whether or not this was a work for hire (the term used in the US), in which case your school could be the copyright owner. In the US, this is based mainly on whether creating the work was a "requirement or duty" of the job, and on the level of supervision that that school exercised over the work. Contracts do not necessarily have the power to override these factors, but may still be relevant -- the law is complicated. Likewise the school may assert some policy saying that they own certain types of IP, but that policy probably has little legal effect.

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