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I am developing some open source software for use in research. I intend to publish a paper about it. (It is marginally novel, and there is a venue I have in mind that accepts such.)

One piece of existing code I would like to derive from to make my tool, is released under a problematic crayon license. It basically boils down to the code is either public domain, GPL, or all rights reserved. (and I can't determine which, and nor can Open Source stack exchange).

So it seems like maybe interpretting the license is a job for an actual lawyer. I know my university has a team of them on retainer. (and I know they do process some documents for students. I had an undergrad unit that required working with a business and we were instructed to forward any NDAs to the lecturer who would get them checked by the university lawyers.)

Making this code is not the primary goal in my research, but it is a stepping stone, and it does furfill some of the stated objectives of one of my supervisor's grants that has been funding me. but it is not a primary part of either.

I can't directly request anything from legal myself, but I could get my supervisor to do so. But I don't know if it is a waste of everybody's time.

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    @Clément i thought about it, but I worry that would lead to people getting off topic. Anyone who is interested can track it down there easily enough, and I have I think all the crucial information here. – Lyndon White Nov 15 '17 at 13:44
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    Do you have (or can you easily have) a plan B in case: you are told to not use that crayon-licensed software? or even you don't get a sure answer (from your university's lawyers) in a reasonable time? – Basile Starynkevitch Nov 15 '17 at 17:49
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    This is not really an academic answer, also not an answer to your actual question, but might still be helpful: Have you asked the project if they would change to a more clear license, linking the FOS post you linked? – Jonas Schäfer Nov 15 '17 at 18:57
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    Have you tried contacting the author to clarify his license grant? – CodesInChaos Nov 15 '17 at 20:25
  • Getting the code relicensed, for a small project, might be vastly easier than getting an answer from a legal department, especially on such a tricky subject (dunno in your university, in mine a different question took IIRC months). An author using a crayon license might not care about specifics of the license — you’ll need each author to agree. And the worst case is they refuse. A legal department might worst-case halt development while reviewing your IP’s legal status (but please ignore my FUD unless your supervisor confirms the danger). – Blaisorblade Nov 15 '17 at 23:02
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Your work is important for your supervisors grant.
Your supervisor is employed at said university and thus his grant is important to the university.
The universities legal team deals with legal issues that are important for the university.

Sounds rather clear to me. Furthermore, asking your supervisor or even sending a short "can you help me with such an issue" mail to the legal team takes only a few minutes of their time.
Of course you should clarify who to ask first and not start off with 10 pages of legal "bla" in your first email.

PS: On the other hand, you might get yourself and the legal team in a lot of trouble if you publish something, under the universities name and with your supervisor employed there, without taking care of such issues first.

  • I might have been unclear. The work isn't important to my supervisors grant. Infact it wasn't until I mentioning it to him today that I even confirmed it was relevant to the grant (and thus the grant might cover the cost of presenting it at a conference.), and that took some prompting – Lyndon White Nov 15 '17 at 12:56
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    Still, you are a student of the university and your supervisor is employed there. And asking if this should be checked doesn't take long, while a potential lawsuit in case you don't have it checked might mean lots of trouble; both for you and for the university. – Dirk Nov 15 '17 at 13:08
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    Some universities even require you to go through the university system for open-sourcing approval with such licenses. research.vt.edu/intellectual-property/open-source-software – JAB Nov 15 '17 at 20:05
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    Among other reasons: if the code you write bears university’s copyright (which seems often enough the case, but IANAL), they have even more reasons to ensure their software doesn’t violate some other IP. On the other hand, the easiest answer for the legal department here is likely “don’t use it”. With a crayon license it might even be the correct answer (IANAL). Worse, “halt anything till we review your IP to ensure it’s safe”. If this is a problem, you shouldn’t hide from them to avoid troubles (advice I actually got), but it’s worth trying to get the software relicensed. – Blaisorblade Nov 15 '17 at 22:56
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    It is also at least moderately likely that the first thing the legal team tells you is to stop talking about the issue with anyone other than them, in any medium other than face-to-face conversation, so as to protect attorney-client privilege as much as possible. The alternative is, in N months/years, you get called into court as a witness and asked about what you meant by some offhand remark in a random email you sent to your supervisor and promptly forgot about. – Kevin Nov 16 '17 at 5:43
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Keep in mind that when you just want to use the software and just publish its output then you might actually not need a license which gives you more permission than simply running the program. It only gets complicated if you want to publish your modified version of the software. However, you should do that in order to make it possible to properly peer-review your methodology and reproduce your research (you don't want to publish results which are just the results of a bug in your software).

Just ask the legal team through your supervisor. The worst thing they can say is that it's not their job. But that's unlikely. When you publish something through your university, then that university is also in the line of fire for any copyright infringement lawsuits.

Another solution could be to contact the author of the software and convince them to release it to you under a proper license. This might in fact be the path of least resistance. One anecdote: The software JSLint was released under a crayon license which was the MIT license with the additional phrase:

The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil

IBM's lawyer refused to accept that term and told their developers to not use that software. So the author made - free of charge - the following proclamation:

I give permission for IBM, its customers, partners, and minions, to use JSLint for evil.

And IBM's legal department greenlit the software.

  • The paper is to be about the research software. This is not software to test a theory, this is software to let people test many theories (once they use it to build there own software) – Lyndon White Nov 16 '17 at 13:28
  • @LyndonWhite In that case it is even more important that you get the license conditions straight, or your whole work becomes a copyright violation. – Philipp Nov 16 '17 at 16:46

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