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Humanitarian Open Source

Obama’s STEM Videogame Challenge & IP

As a professor it’s often interesting what life throws at you in a course.  I am now in the third week of teaching Humantarian Open Source Software course at the Rochester Institute of Technology.   Primarily a project-based course, students in this class are here largely to create or improve educational software for the Math4 Team at Sugar Labs for the OLPC XO Laptop or for the XO itself.   Unlike prior semesters where we had a mix of new/original projects and students jumping onto pre-existing open source projects, this trimester students were asked exclusively to either jump onto a pre-existing project or if they wanted to start from scratch to choose from a list of projects that had been specifically requested from OLPC deployment.

Among the many differences between working in the OS community and environment and working in a traditional commercial software environment, perhaps the most fundamental, important, and complex difference is how IP is treated and managed.  Anyone who has spent time looking at a FOSS or Open Source license such as the GPL knows how differently IP is regarded in this setting–indeed these differences form the basis upon which the entire collaborative social model of the Open Source Community is based.

At a glance the Obama STEM Videogame Challenge would seem to be a perfect fit for students laboring in this course, and the prizes offered by the Challenge are substantial: $25K-$50k.  Our students are working to produce educational humanitarian software for students in need.  Some Challenge categories are almost identically delineated.  In one categore the Challenge even specifies that math oriented educational software should target students in the K-4th grade range–most of our students are producing educational software to fit a 4th grade math curriculum.

There is even an award category for students working in groups of four–which is most common sized working group in the source.

The problem that arises, however, is that we have already asked our students to jump onto pre-existing projects.  We did this in the hope of “clearing the decks” so to speak, to in effect give the thumbs-up or down to unfinished projects that had been created by prior groups of students in the course.  In fact most of the projects originated in the course’s three prior sessions are unfinished.  For a course using a traditional copyright IP model, older projects like this would be utterly dead, unless the originators had stuck with them and ushered them to completion on their own time.  But in the OS world, this need not be the case at all.  To have any chance of success at all in the OS community a software project must be at the very least both public and well documented.  Why?  Because everyone in the community, or almost everyone, is a volunteer whose only pay is the chance to work on something they find engaging and exciting.  Proprietary secrets are neither.  All of the pre-existing projects created for this course were managed with the idea that the project might be worked on, or indeed completed, by people other than its originators.  The bar for documentation, both within and without the code itself, has been set high, and has in most cases been met.  These projects have been designed to be picked up by others–that is the Open Source way.

But if a group of four of our students work on a pre-existing project, that was itself created by a different four students, was that software then created by a group of four students, or eight?  Suppose our students work on a new project, the concept for which was called for by a representative in the distribution field.  Does that person constitute a fifth person in the group?  Will the STEM Challenge allow entries with Open Source licenses?  If so which kinds?

According to our schedule, my students are supposed to make their final software project decisions tomorrow and start preliminary planning this weekend.  The course’s creator, Professor Stephen Jacobs, has written to STEM requesting clarification on these issues, but we have no idea when we will receive a response.  In the meantime the class and I now have a fascinating discussion ahead of us as to the exact nature of OS IP–with very real-world consequences–or should I say “Fabulous Prizes?!!”  I’m not sure yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

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