Who owns open source software?  The simple answer is “everyone”, but the reality is more complex. Take a look at these two documents:

In order to protect people who want to make contributions, many open source projects set up non-profit organizations. If you want to make a contribution, you have to agree to give that organization the right to use your code.  That doesn’t mean you lose your rights (read the second paragraph of the Canonical agreement, for example), but it does stop you from turning around next year and saying, “I’ve decided to start a company around this, so I’d like you to take it out of your packages.”

We haven’t needed agreements like this for code written by summer interns: they’re doing the work for hire, and we’re their employer. The situation is a lot less clear when it comes to work students doing during term for grades. Does the university automatically have the right to use it? Does this university (the University of Toronto) have the right to use work done by students at other schools? Does it make a difference whether the student is paying fees or on scholarship? (You can argue that a student on scholarship is being paid just like a summer intern.)

Turning it around, do students automatically have a right to work they’ve done in courses? It seems like the answer should be “yes”, but what about graduate students: in most US schools, they’re supported out of their supervisors’ grant money, so once again, you can argue that it’s a work for hire.

The reality is that most universities are still struggling to figure out what to do about intellectual property in general, and open source in specific. There are many shades of gray between a student contributing to an open source project on her own time, using her own machine, and that same student using the university’s resources to start up an online mah jongg business.  As an exercise, you may want to try to find out what your school’s policy is, and then figure out what it means and how uniformly it’s applied.  If you discover anything interesting, please post comments here.