NASA looks to lower open source licensing barriers

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The recent launch of code.nasa.gov is providing better access to NASA sourced and funded projects, but William Eshagh of the NASA open government team says some forthcoming open-source licensing changes will make it more participatory.

"We're still working through, I think, some of the finer details of how to accept contributions from the public," said Eshagh in a recent interview. "More often than not, open source projects at NASA are collaborative efforts between NASA government employees and NASA contractors. And when that happens we have to be a little more creative with how we approach the usage rights problem."

Most NASA open source projects use the NASA Open Source Agreement, or NOSA, said Eshagh. A soon-to-be-delivered contributor license agreement under NOSA will clarify usage rights, he said. In its current state, "if a government employee creates something copyright doesn't apply to it, it's considered a public works. If a contractor and a civil servant work together, it's not so clear."

NOSA presents broader problems, as well. Eshagh said it's a niche license that many developers are unfamiliar with. "We've been trying to branch away from the NASA Open Source Agreement a little bit," he said.

For example, NASA recently released the Nebula cloud computing platform controller using an Apache 2 license, rather than NOSA. This led to the creation of OpenStack, as NASA's code was combined with code released under Apache 2 by Rackspace, said Eshagh.

"We have a number of projects going the Apache 2 route and if they're not on there, they're working on it," said Eshagh. "That's seen as a way to interact with the public without as many burdens, without having to understand a new license, understand its terms, have your lawyers review it."

"Apache is well understood [and] broadly distributed. We're kind of using that one. But that's not to say that's exclusively the right license...we're exploring more license options," said Eshagh.

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