Researchers examine open-source software licensing

As scientists turn more often to high-end computers running the open-source Linux operating system, they need to think about the licenses for the software that they use on top of Linux.

Paul A. Gottlieb, the Energy Department's assistant general counsel for technology transfer and intellectual property, said that before he started reviewing Energy's software licensing policies in 2000, the department's researchers had two choices. They could either release code as uncopyrighted scientific data, freely available to all, or they could make copyrighted software available through restrictive licensing arrangements.

Now Energy lab researchers have a third choice: release code as open-source software under either the BSD license or the Gnu General Public License.

Gottlieb and other research chiefs at the recent SC2003 conference in Phoenix reviewed their experience with open-source software and offered suggestions on how the licensing model can be used in government laboratories.

In general, both licenses permit redistribution of source code as well as binary versions. GPL-style licenses, however, require that modifications to the original code must also be licensed as open source; the BSD-type licenses do not have that requirement.

Scientists are now making the decisions on licensing, as they should, Gottlieb said. In the future, though, agency researchers will need to determine whether distribution of government-funded software under the GPL would lock in the future.

Mainstream Linux distributions are not suited to the specialized needs of high-performance computing, said Jeff Brown, program manager for the Advanced Simulation and Computing program's computer science group at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Los Alamos and other Energy labs are developing new ways to use Linux on large systems and clusters. For example, Los Alamos is using a 2,048-processor cluster from Linux Networx Inc. of Bluffdale, Utah, for system software research. Sandia National Laboratories has had a commodity Linux computing project, known as Computational Plant or Cplant, running since 1998.

Copyright-style open-source licenses such as the BSD license are best for research purposes because they provide the most options for licensing derivative programs, said Todd Needham, manager of Microsoft Corp.'s research programs group.

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