Friday, January 04, 2002

Public Money, Private Code My friend EV sent this story on how universities, obsessed with licensing code for money, are forbidding professors to release their work under Open Source licenses. This is particularly worrying because of the role Berkeley's BSD in creating the Internet.

I don't see it as quite the catastrophe the article portrays. Before licensing, much potentially useful research never went anywhere because the producer had no incentive to take it to market. Now technology can be licensed, so producers are more vigilant about making sure useful things get to people, which helps everyone.

There are some problems. Firstly there's the agency problem--the university owns the IP and its interests are not the same as the researchers. A researcher might want her idea to be widely used, but the university wants to restrict the quantity and so make excess profit. Secondly, publicly funded "blue-sky" research plays a critical role in furthering science, and keeping an eye on commercial viability may stifle this. I would correct both of these by granting the IP to the principal researcher, who can then choose to sell it to the University, to a company, or to the public domain. Moreover, a smart researcher (and university) could do both under a dual-licensing scheme (GPL + commercial license). This way the product can be taken to market but is also free for everyone to use and build on.

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