First and foremost, I am not a lawyer. :) But I think I’ve got a tricky question: Can I integrate contributing code to an open-source project as part of the curriculum, and if so, how?

Let me provide some context: In particular, engineering students produce code as part of their curriculum (either as part of courses or theses). Often, this does not happen in the void, but the students extend open-source or research software projects. Open source software is software that is available under a license that grants the right to use, modify, and distribute the software, modified or not, to everyone free of charge.

However, from my limited point of view, there is an issue with students’ intellectual property (IP): One could argue that we, as teachers, enforce use rights on their IP when they contribute back to the open source project (or research software under an open-source license).

I think this applies only to contributions as part of their curriculum because if students are employed in any way, their working contracts cover the transfer of use rights.

Am I overthinking the problem? How do you handle that at your university?

  • 1
    just to clarify, is your intention to demand students to a) produce code based on OSS, or b) publish the produced code in any way and form they please, or c) contribute to existing OSS by way of fork or pull request? Commented Mar 14 at 13:21
  • Sorry for the unclarity. c) Commented Mar 14 at 18:33

1 Answer 1


I think there is indeed an issue with IP. It will depend on what your students agree to on enrollment, but it seems unlikely that transfer of IP to a third party/public domain as a condition of passing a course would be covered.

Making it optional would probably address the issue though - i.e. give students the option to either contribute to a "real" project, or to a private fork or some other local system you can verify. That way they aren't forced to give up IP to pass the class, and you emphasise that they won't be scored differently.

I also imagine most students would find this rewarding if it's well organised, so you hopefully wouldn't encounter too many objections, but good to have the alternative in place in advance.

As an aside, will you be able to ensure a good standard of output from these students? There have been a number of cases recently where promotions on e.g. GitHub gave rewards for commits, which led to a flood of low quality contributions and quite a bit of bad feeling towards the organisers, which I'm sure you'd want to avoid.

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