NASA considers open-source license to publish software

NASA is crafting a license that it would use to release applications developed by the space agency as open-source software.

A team of intellectual property lawyers'from NASA's headquarters, Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and Langley Research Center'is working on the agreement.

The six-member team estimated a final version would be ready by early summer. Last month, NASA submitted a draft of the license to the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit governing body that accredits open-source software standards.

Although the NASA agreement draws boilerplate language from existing open-source licenses, such as the Gnu GPL, it also has original language to meet the specific needs of the agency, said Bryan Geurts, a NASA lawyer who works at Goddard. It includes indemnification from liabilities arising from third-party use, and, for tracking purposes, the agreement has a voluntary request that users report adoption of NASA software, he said.

Not all software funded by NASA will be made available under the license. 'We will determine this on a case-by-case basis,' said Gary Borda, a patent lawyer who works in the agency's headquarters legal office.

NASA could benefit from greater use of open-source in multiple ways, argued NASA employee Patrick Moran in an April 2003 report, Developing an Open Source Option for NASA Software.

One benefit would be that a wider number of programmers, who might identify bugs and potential problems, would likely review the source code. 'Open-source enables a type of peer review for software,' noted Moran, a researcher in the Advanced Supercomputing Division at Ames.

A free software agreement would also let schools and research facilities easily use the data that NASA collects, the report said.

NASA makes some software available for educational use now, but not the underlying code. For instance, NASA now offers Maestro, the program it uses to guide the Mars rovers, as a free educational download. Under an open-source agreement, advanced users would be able to add features to the software, features that NASA then could use itself.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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