The Schizoid State of Open Source At NC State
We're an Open Source University, No We're Not
As a alumnus of NC State University's Computer Science Department attending from the late 90's until 2003 one of the hot topics during my course of study was open source. Linux was probably the most prominent champion of the open source cause, but there is much more to it than a free (as in freedom) operating system. Open source is a philosophy that encompasses almost every facet of computer science, it is the Ying to Microsoft's Yang.
Open source is about sharing knowledge and reaping the full benefits of that open and honest exchange, while at the same time not completely up heaving traditional commercial practices. I could go into a lot of detail about the whole phenomena, but Opensource.org can do a much better job than I could ever hope to.
As a student, and a part-time worker in the late 90's I was told that NC State was embracing the open source movement. Considering that academia has every thing to gain from the open source philosophy and that it fits in perfectly with NC State's extension objectives, I was under the impression that our involvement with open source was to be bi-directional. In reality the sweeping statement, made in February 2000, only goes skin deep and as far as I have been able to discern the Legal Department is intent on preventing the university from contributing to the open source movement on the grounds that the University could loose potential money on "patentable and marketable" products. This effectively would make the university a parasitic entity on the open source movement, reaping all the benefits, but giving nothing back. This approach would directly violate the university's charter to share the fruits of academic pursuits with the citizens of the state through it's mission of extension.
The real problem is that no one is discussing this publicly. I attempted several weeks ago to begin a serious dialog and was met with resistance from several colleges that were also frustrated with the issue, but were unwilling to pursue it further*. Their experience had been that legal said no and that was the end of it. I have yet to find out on what grounds legal is basing this statement and I have not approached legal myself. I have however found policy to the contrary (IV A 1) that would support even SPA staff in the decisions to publish to open source at both the University and UNC System levels under certain cases.
Since my manager is, and always has been, responsive to issues like this we are cautiously pursuing the matter. As with anything in the University, getting an answer is frustratingly slow. As an SPA I realize that the work I create on the university's time is owned by the university, but that is not the issue. The issue is Legal's alleged blocking of placing non-commercial works into the open source realm directly violates the policy (II). They appear to be effectively blocking any attempts to make projects open source by refusing to pursue the issue in a reasonable fashion, even on a case by case basis. At the same time they are discouraging further attempts through intimidation.
The Crux of the Issue
I have a large number of projects that should be open sourced, further there are a large number of projects that I have had to put on hold because I cannot afford to allow Legal to block their release to open source once completed. This situation is stagnating my productivity. As with many developers, I have a large number of projects that I would like to pursue and a limited amount of time to devote to them. Many are work related and I would be happy for the University to own them provided they were released to open source since they merit academic pursuit. I'm not a money oriented person, but should anything I make turn out to be marketable there is nothing about the nature of open source that would prevent the university from commercializing on the projects and paying me my 15% royalties. In fact, nothing I produce will become marketable until it is first open sourced.
I can pursue some projects on my personal time, resolving the initial issue. The problem with this solution is that my personal time is already saturated with personal projects that are not work related. It would make little sense to inconvenience myself and at the same time deny the university of the ownership of a product, which I'm perfectly willing to give to them, because one university office is breaking policy. I do not know how guilty or innocent legal is of this infraction, since so far all I have is the word of my fellow developers and my own understanding of policy.
I welcome comments and feedback from anyone who is also interested in tackling the barrier to making projects created at the university open source. Is this barrier a figment of my co-worker's imaginations? Is legal completely wrong, or is there some other policy they are going by that trumps what I have found? These are the things I need to know.
Email me: jthurtea -at- ncsu edu