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If you are an employee, work you do in the course of your job (as opposed to in your spare time) is a "work for hire" and the copyright is by default owned by the company you work for.

How do you go about getting permission to open source any of it?

There are questions about how to go about opening a formerly closed project For example - How should I approach open sourcing a library from work?

In a large organisation that hasn't done it before it is a significant hurdle to legal permission to open source a body of work regardless of size.

The case most commonly discussed it the one where the company makes a strategic move to open source an entire product or a significant body of work that relates to it (e.g. star office or facebook's folly libraries). But what about the on the small scale?

You need sign off from someone with the legal authority to sign for the company, as the copyright holder.

Ideally the legal department would approve a copyright license or waiver the way they would draft a standard contract for a supplier. You could draft a waiver yourself but the legal department would still need to review it.

That potentially costs money. The legal department may have no experience or understanding of open source either.

Are there any bodies that would or could step in from the outside to help? I'm thinking along the lines of the software freedom conservancy (http://sfconservancy.org) but rather than (or in addition to) litigating against infringers they might provide free advice in such cases.

For example.

Imagine there is a company which provides services via a data processing system (e.g. market research) but does not view itself as a software company.

In the course of work on the data processing system an employee has an idea that might be beneficial to the wider software community but is not in itself profitable (think along the lines of file formats & software protocols which require adoption as an open standard to be any use). The company has no direct interest in developing it. The employee/inventor promotes it and works on it internally when it is relevant to work they are doing on the data processing system.

The employee is willing to devote time outside of his or her day job and does not require any help from the employer. However, the employer is the copyright holder because it is a "work for hire".

That company is owned part by a larger umbrella company whose legal team tend to get involved mainly for mergers and acquistions. The company itself has a very small legal team and tends to out source legal work. It can cost $1000s per hour.

The only two people with the power to legally sign things off are the CEO and the chief financial officer. They are very far removed from the day to day work on the data processing system.

The hurdles to overcome are:

  1. convincing them there is no risk
  2. selling them on the idea of open source (easier as they use a lot of it themselves)
  3. avoiding expensive legal bills

The chances of success seem slim. What can be done to improve them? Are there any examples of where this has or hasn't worked?

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From my personal experience, where I convinced management at my company (small biotech) to allow me to open source a software package, there are a few points that you need to sell to make your argument convincing:

  1. Giving away your software does not give away any competitive advantage. Basically, you need to assure management that your competitors are not going to use this software to put you out of business.

  2. You have more to gain from giving away the software than to lose. For OSS, the argument generally is that the contributions of the community will outweigh the extra time you will have to take to support it. Your time is your employer's money, you need to show them that it will not be wasted.

  3. Open sourcing the software will not cost the company anything or make it liable for damages caused by its use. Most of the popular OSS licenses explicitly state that the author is not responsible for damages caused by the use of the software. The onus is on you, however, for making sure that you are not in violation of the terms of any of the software packages your software uses.

Other than these three points, you can help your cause by picking an appropriate license and handling all of the other responsibilities of releasing your software. It is also handy to lay out the best and worst-case scenarios for releasing your software as well, and explain how you might handle these situations. Given all of this information, if management trusts you or anyone vouching for you, there should be little reason for lengthy legal consultations.

  • It seems the hardest hurdle is corporate inertia. I have so far been unable to find anyone willing to take responsibility for answering the question with either a yes or a no. – Bruce Adams Mar 7 '18 at 12:34

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