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Open But Not Too Open: caBIG Shuns GPL, Writes Own Open Source License


BETHESDA, Md. — Some caBIG participants were surprised to hear last week that the project's "open" philosophy has some limits when it comes to open source software licenses. In a breakout session, caBIG's Data Sharing and Intellectual Capital (DSIC) working group said that it is drafting its own open source software "template" license agreement that will not be required, but will act as a default in cases where caBIG developers don't suggest another license for their software.

The number of available open source licenses that caBIG will accept under its guidelines is still undetermined, but there is at least one license that the project will not accept: the GPL.

One of the most commonly used open source licenses, the GPL allows developers to create and distribute derivative works, but it requires that those distributed works are also licensed under the GPL. This characteristic, often described as "viral" in the software community, was considered counter to caBIG's goals, according to Wendy Paterson, senior advisor in NCI's technology transfer branch.

Paterson said that caBIG wanted developers to have the option to release derivative works under the license of their choice. This feature is of "critical importance" to caBIG's objectives, she said, "because it permits private/public partnerships in this space."

Under caBIG's guidelines, "there is no obligation to make a modified product subject to the same open source software licensing terms," Paterson said. "A commercial entity could take a [caBIG] product, make a wrapper for it, charge for it and release it under a non-open source license. They're entirely welcome to do that."

According to Ken Buetow, director of the NCI Center for Bioinformatics, caBIG is drafting its own license because, as a government agency, the NCI is not able to "formally endorse" any existing open source licenses. The project is "breaking new ground" for a government agency by stepping into the area of open source licensing at all, he said.

Patricia Weeks, head of the DSIC's Proprietary special interest group, which is overseeing the drafting of the license, said that the caBIG template license includes elements from a number of available open source licenses, but also addresses several issues, such as patenting, that are not included in other options.

An overview slide presented during the session outlined the rights granted to a licensee of caBIG software as "perpetual, no charge, irrevocable, transferable, and royalty-free." The terms of copyright would give licensees the right to "use, install, access, operate, execute, reproduce, copy, modify, translate, market, publicly display, and publicly perform" caBIG software.

The license would also grant rights to users "that would otherwise be considered infringing," in the case when caBIG software has been patented, Weeks said.

Weeks said that the DSIC working group is seeking comments on the draft version of the license, which should be posted on its website soon. At press time, the draft was not yet posted.

— BT

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