Publicly Releasing Open Source Software Developed for the U.S. Government

Dr. David A. Wheeler | SoftwareTechNews | April 5, 2010

This article summarizes when the U.S. federal government or its contractors may publicly release, as open source software (OSS), software developed with government funds.  This article is intended for non-lawyers, to help them understand the basic rules they must follow.

Before going further, a few definitions and warnings are necessary.  In this article, the term “government” means the U.S. federal government.  “You” means the government organization or contractor who wants to release software to the public as OSS.  “Releasing to the public as OSS” means (1) releasing the software source code to the general public (such as through a public website) and (2) giving its users the freedom to use it (for anypurpose), study it, modify it, and redistribute it (modified or not)[1].  Note that these freedoms can be given by releasing the software under an OSS license,[2] or by releasing it without any copyright protection.  This article is not legal advice, and variations of specific facts can produce different results.  Also, note that government contracting is very different from commercial practices; do not presume that commercial practices apply.

To determine if you can release to the public some software developed with government funds as OSS, you must answer the following five questions...