In the United States, if a university lab develops code while receiving public funding, are they legally obligated to release their source code?

  • If "public domain" means no license, then - no. Because even GPL is not public domain.
    – sanaris
    Mar 16 '19 at 15:15

No, in general they are not.

It is true that works prepared by US federal government employees as part of their official duties are in the public domain. This applies, for instance, to journal articles by scientists at DOE or DOD laboratories. It does not apply to public university employees (they work for state/local governments) and, as far as I know, it does not apply to computer code.

  • It can also depend on the specific contract and the specific funding agency. I don't know if there are State laws that also need to be considered, or even university policies. The picture is complex, but as you say, the general answer is no.
    – Buffy
    Mar 15 '19 at 0:20
  • All of this is covered by the Bayh-Dole Act. Wikipedia has a good description of it. Mar 15 '19 at 1:44

All the work done for an employer belongs to the employer (the software belongs to the University, not the research group). The employer, depending on its legal status, might have some legal obligations in terms of copyright and IP of the work it is done on its behalf. In addition, when the funding comes, it comes with, or without, a number of other specific obligations about copyright and IP. These are potentially overriding those imposed by the employer (because the employer accepts the funding and the conditions).

So the answer to your question is: check if there are any conditions attached to the funding (which are pertinent only if they fund the project) and if there are any condition your employer needs to fulfil.

  • Your first statement is too strong. I don't think you will find any US law to that effect. Contract law is what applies, I believe. Some universities claim all IP. Some claim only Patentable IP. Others leave it to the individuals. The reason it is murky is that most university intellectual work isn't done under direct supervision of the university. You aren't told what to study or how to go about it. The genesis of the work comes from individuals, usually faculty. But contracts apply, of course.
    – Buffy
    Mar 15 '19 at 0:39

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