Software & Open Source Protection
We assist inventors and authors in licensing software under a variety of distribution strategies including licensing for commercial development and distribution, non-commercial and/or academic purposes, and open source.
We provide support for:
- Licensing software code for end use, commercial development, and distribution
- Licensing unpolished code for non-commercial research and/or academic purposes
- Distributing software via open source licenses
Copyrighting Software vs. Patenting Software
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for original works from the moment they are created in a tangible medium, and it applies whether they are published, unpublished, or registered with the US Copyright Office.
For more information on copyright, United States Copyright Office Copyright Basics Guidebook [PDF] is an excellent resource.
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 we will assist in determining the most appropriate form of protection.
It is not the TLO’s normal practice to register software with the US Copyright Office. For reference, many (non-software) creative works generated at MIT that are copyrightable are not owned by MIT.
Submitting Your Disclosures
If you have software that you believe incorporates a patentable process or algorithm, you should submit:
- An invention disclosure: Outlining the process or algorithm.
- A software code disclosure: Encompassing the copyrightable software code.
Each disclosure will be assigned its own, unique case number. We will then assess and determine commercial viability of either or both:
- The process or algorithm
- The software code
Note that inventors of the process or algorithm need not be (and likely are not) identical to the authors of the code. We will discuss licensing strategies with the principal inventors and authors of the software.
The disclosures 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 disclosures are submitted, they should reference each other in the description of the software.
If you are from Lincoln Laboratory, use the Lincoln Laboratory Software Copyright Disclosure Form or the Lincoln Laboratory Invention Disclosure Form for the related patentable process or algorithm.
Open Source Licensing
In keeping with their commitment to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible, MIT faculty adopted an Open Access Policy in 2009. We are supportive of requests from MIT faculty and staff regarding distributing software via open source licenses, without fee or royalty.
We have worked with MIT faculty and the Office of General Counsel (OGC) to identify ideal licenses to use when releasing MIT-owned copyrights through open source.
If you're interested in learning more about open source software, please visit our resources page. We have a variety of resources that can help you get started with open source and navigate your open source journey.
In order to distribute via open source, certain key criteria and steps must be met:
- The authors should confirm that any sponsors of the software will agree to an open source distribution model.
- The authors must complete a software disclosure for any software that is to be released under an open source license.
- The Technology Licensing Office (TLO) will 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.
- If the software contains other “open source” software, or any software that was downloaded, used, copied, linked, or provided by a third party, authors must identify these codes and their licenses and work with the TLO to understand the license terms under which that software has been provided.
- Once third-party rights, if any, are resolved, we will discuss the various numerous open source license models and strategies with the authors.
Note that certain license terms have specific restrictions, and certain open source licenses are untenable for MIT to use. We can assist the author with understanding these terms and finding suitable open source licenses.
- 3-clause BSD license (BSD-3-Clause)
- GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) (as required by other licenses)
Once the TLO has approved the 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.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Stay updated with the latest insights and events with our quarterly newsletter.
Connect with our team to explore opportunities and gain insights into licensing and IP protection.