Academic free software

Posted 6 Dec 2001 at 16:42 UTC by isenguard Share This

Most academic software is released under a "free for academic use" license, which makes it impossible to use such software in a free software project. Some notable counterexamples exist. I am looking for more examples of academic software that has been successfully released under truly free licenses.

The majority of academic researchers release the software they create as part of their research, but they generally do so under a license that restricts use of the software to academic purposes. Among other things, that makes it impossible to incorporate research software directly into free software projects.

I and a colleague are in the process of writing a paper advocating that our particular research community adopts free software licensing as a general practice. The benefits to the free software community of having more free software are clear, but the arguments for making academic software free are less well defined, and different from those applicable to the commercial world.

Can anyone point to successful free software projects primarily authored by academic researchers, for which the release under a free software license has benefited the research being undertaken?

The R project is the one I know best, but there must be others.

ET++ and InterViews, posted 6 Dec 2001 at 17:40 UTC by sej » (Master)

I would say that ET++ and InterViews fall in this category. These OO frameworks were released under BSD-style licenses, and used by many parties. They re-invested this technical capital into DesignPatterns.

BSD Unix, posted 6 Dec 2001 at 18:08 UTC by goingware » (Master)

Well, there is BSD Unix, which was originally a research project of the University of California at Berkeley (BSD = Berkeley Software Distribution).

While it wasn't originally freely redistributable, because it contained AT&T source code, eventually the released large parts of it without the AT&T source, and then they wrote replacements for the AT&T source so the whole think could be released.

hm, posted 6 Dec 2001 at 18:11 UTC by i0lanthe » (Journeyer)

I know the Sphinx project here at CMU is now Open Source, but I don't know whether they have perceived exciting benefits as a result (speech recognition is way out of my area)... you would have to ask Kevin Lenzo about it to find out, probably.

bioinformatics software, posted 6 Dec 2001 at 19:30 UTC by dalke » (Journeyer)

There is some bioinformatics software which is free. One is the NCBI toolkit, which is developed by the NIH (a government organization) so is in the public domain. Another is HMMER, from Wash. Univ. St. Louis, released under the GPL. Some more are EMBOSS, Artemis, SEALS. While not strictly academic software, you might also look into bioperl, biopython, and other projects supported by Another place to look is This should be enough for you to find other non-restrictive software.

You may also be interested in a proposal requesting that the various public funding sources require grant recipients release their software under an open source / free license. This is at Despite my advocacy, I happen to disagree with the petition. My reasons are posted in the last few weeks of the O'Reilly bioinformatics mailing list, which is at http://labs.ore

X11 and CMUCL, posted 6 Dec 2001 at 20:36 UTC by jwalther » (Journeyer)

X11 itself was released under the MIT license, which is Open Source. CMUCL is released under GPL I believe. Both tremendously important in their respective areas. In fact, I'd say they both dominate their categories.

Computational Number Theory, posted 6 Dec 2001 at 21:53 UTC by fxn » (Master)

Pari/GP is GPLed.

Compiler Construction Tools, posted 6 Dec 2001 at 22:27 UTC by jooon » (Journeyer)

Eli is also GPL

Kerberos, posted 7 Dec 2001 at 02:32 UTC by krftkndl » (Journeyer)

MIT Kerberos is free software (the KTH implementation too). I believe this has affected the project in a positive way.

Octave, posted 7 Dec 2001 at 14:07 UTC by shd » (Journeyer)


KRoC, posted 7 Dec 2001 at 17:14 UTC by azz » (Journeyer)

KRoC, the Kent Research occam Compiler, was released under the GPL (with libraries under the LGPL), and runs very nicely on Linux.

MacAnova, posted 8 Dec 2001 at 18:54 UTC by Mulad » (Apprentice)

MacAnova, another S-like statistical package, is released under the GPL. I actually had trouble finding the license when I downloaded it, but I contacted one of the authors, and that's what he said.

phpwebsite, posted 9 Dec 2001 at 09:07 UTC by deekayen » (Master)

A project that started up right around the same time as PHP Nuke:

Greenstone Digital Library software, posted 9 Dec 2001 at 11:24 UTC by loam » (Journeyer)

Greenstone is digital library software from the New Zealand Digital Library, a research group the University of Waikato. They also have a machine learning group who have released a package called Weka.

Both are on-going research projects by numbers of researchers; both are also used by real people in the real world.

Ptolemy, posted 10 Dec 2001 at 18:52 UTC by jbuck » (Master)

I helped start the Ptolemy system-level CAD project, which has been extremely influential in the research community. If it hadn't been free software it wouldn't have had such an impact, in my opinion.

Definitions, posted 10 Dec 2001 at 23:38 UTC by Donwulff » (Journeyer)

What is exactly meant by "Academic Software" in this context? If this refers specifically to software used to directly further research - statistics packages and such - the list may be fairly short. If it's any software produced by research projects, or even any software produced in the academia, then the list is quite long one. Open Source has typically been its strongest among academic settings. BSD style license has very deep roots in the academia. I'm personally involved in development of X-Smiles prototype XML-browser for "exotic devices", which may not be very popular, but certainly succesful and ongoing effort. Altough the BSD license has not garnered us many outside developers, it has allowed us to plug in ready- made packages without which the project couldn't exist. It also means we have to deal with outside decisions for packages we use, such as the contention that embedded/handheld environments are not worth supporting.

Also, the question assumes these programs fall into only one of two possible categories: Restricted to research, and Open Source. Quite a few, possibly most, fall in the grey area in-between. They place additional restrictions, not qualifying them to be Open Source by official definitions, but still allowing widespread use. For an example, the license for TINKER, used among other things in the Folding@home distributed project that's quickly gaining popularity. And, finally ofcourse, there's the question of what constitutes as "succesful" ;)

Technion's Policy, posted 15 Dec 2001 at 10:42 UTC by shlomif » (Master)

From what my instructor, Lavy Libman, told me it is the Technion policy that any projects done by the students as part of their Bachelor degree, (and were not initiated by an industry firm) will be released under an Open-Source license. Which license is left to the decision of the students.

For once, the IP-Noise Simulator project which Roy Glasberg and I conducted, is such a case.

Speech Database Software, posted 26 Dec 2001 at 05:33 UTC by stevecassidy » (Journeyer)

Both my Emu speech database system and the more recent Annotation Graph Toolkit are open source projects. There are a number of other tools in this area (annotating linguistic data) which are open sourced, there's a useful index at LDC, Upenn.

These tools are mainly aimed at helping Linguists work with large collections of multimedia data. We're finding now that open source efforts are helping standardise the tools and the data formats used for annotation.

One of our reasons for beginning Emu was the high cost of the standard speech annotation software which only ran on unix workstations and required a per-seat licence. This made it useless for teaching anything but a handful of students. Our software now gets used in teaching labs around the world as well as for research purposes.

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