Software and Open Source Licensing


Copyright Basics

A copyright grants authors/creators the legal right to exclude others from copying, licensing, and otherwise exploiting original literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc. This includes software code. Copyright protection is available for original works from the moment they are created in a tangible medium, and it applies whether they are published, unpublished or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

For more information on copyright, United States Copyright Office Copyright Basics Guidebook [PDF] is an excellent resource.

Copyrighting Software vs. Patenting Software

In general terms, a patent protects an idea and a copyright protects an expression of an idea. In the case of software, copyright protects the source and object code, but only protects the code as it is written. A patent conveys the right to prevent others from making using, selling or importing a program that performs the same function or process as the patented software, even if the code is entirely different from the patented software.

It is possible to protect some software under both copyright and patent law, and the TLO will assist in determining the most appropriate form of protection.

Software Licensing

The TLO assists authors and inventors in licensing software under a variety of licensing types and distribution strategies. In addition to licensing software code for end use, commercial development and distribution, the TLO licenses unpolished code for non-commercial research and/or academic purposes and also assists authors in distributing software via open source licenses.

Submitting to the TLO

If you have software that you believe incorporates a patentable process or algorithm, you should submit the MIT Invention Disclosure Form as to the process or algorithm. In addition, you should submit the MIT Software Code Disclosure Form, which encompasses the copyrightable software code. Each Disclosure Form will be assigned its own, unique case number. The TLO will then assess: 1) the process or algorithm; and 2) the software code, to determine the commercial viability of either or both. Please note that inventors of the process or algorithm need not be (and likely are not) identical to the authors of the code. The TLO will discuss licensing strategies with the principal inventors and authors of the software.

The Disclosure Forms should be filled out completely, including sponsorship information, a description of the software, a listing of any third party code or open source code embedded in the software and returned with original author signatures. If both Forms are used, they should reference each other in the description of the software.

If you are from Lincoln Laboratory, please use the Lincoln Laboratory Software Copyright Disclosure Form or the Lincoln Laboratory Invention Disclosure Form for the related patentable process or algorithm.

Please contact the TLO with any questions.

Open Source Licensing

The TLO is supportive of requests from MIT faculty and staff regarding distributing software via open source licenses, without fee or royalty. The TLO must first confirm there is not an active sponsored research grant that would prevent such distribution and that such distribution has been approved by the head of the relevant department, laboratory, or center. The authors must complete the MIT Software Disclosure Form for any software that is to be released under an open source license.

Before choosing to distribute via open source, the authors should confirm that any sponsors of the software will agree to an open source distribution model.

If your software contains other “open source” or “free” software, or any software that you have downloaded, used, copied, linked, or have been provided by a third party, you must identify these codes and their licenses and work with the TLO to understand the license terms under which that software has been provided.  Certain license terms have specific restrictions, and certain open source licenses are untenable for MIT to use. The TLO can assist the author with understanding these terms and finding suitable open source licenses.

Once third party rights, if any, are resolved, there are numerous open source license models from which to choose. “Approved” open source licenses are those approved by the Open Source Initiative (“OSI”). However, any license that releases the source code without a required payment is an open source, or sometimes called “shared source,” license. A complete list of OSI approved licenses can be seen at Generally, MIT recommends either the BSD license or the GPLv2  or LGPLv2  licenses. The TLO will discuss open source licensing strategies with the authors.

Once the TLO has approved release of the software via an open source license, you may then post or distribute your software under such open source license. It is up to you to read the instructions related to the specific license and to provide the appropriate copyright/license text with your postings. Please keep the TLO informed of the website URL at which your software is posted.