Open source software and commercial licenses? Not mutually exclusive!

© natanaelginting

© natanaelginting

Combining open source and technology transfer via commercial licenses is possible and works well, as illustrated by the example of the OpenPifPaf human body pose estimation software developed in the EPFL's Visual Intelligence for Transport laboratory.

"Contrary to popular belief, open science and technology transfer through commercial licensing are not mutually exclusive, as our example shows," explains Alexandre Alahi, professor at EPFL and head of the Visual Intelligence for Transport (VITA) laboratory. Developed in the VITA lab in 2019, OpenPifPaf uses machine learning to estimate - in real time and with high accuracy - the human body pose but can be also extended to other classes of objects such as cars, animals, or furniture." Downloaded more than 370,000 times (20,000 new users per month), the software is used in the fields of autonomous driving technology, medical research and sports analysis, among others.

Different software licenses can be applied

"Our primary goal was to make sure that everyone could use OpenPifPaf, especially in the scientific community", says Alahi. "We wanted to promote open science to encourage others to build on our work.” So how do you combine open source and commercial licenses in such a context? "Even if the software is developed in open source, it is still possible to issue commercial licenses to companies," explains Mauro Lattuada, Technology transfer manager, at the EPFL Technology transfer office. "Depending on the purpose of the distribution different software licenses can be applied. This is possible because copyright allows the owner to issue multiple licenses, for the same creative work, like in the case of a book which can be licensed for printing or a film adaptation or a translation in another language."

The solution: a copyleft license

In the case of OpenPifPaf, the type of license used is a Affero General Public License (AGPL). The different GPL licenses are copyleft, which means that any derivative or combined work must be distributed under the same or equivalent license term. "Anyone who wants to re-distribute the code in a modified or unmodified form shall also share the source code of the original software as well as the source code of his/her own modifications, under the same license terms," says Lattuada. "For this reason, the GPL license is also called viral."

However, this model is not suitable for all companies since some of them have their implicit business model based on proprietary software and applications. In such cases, in order to avoid the copyleft constraints "it is possible to issue non-exclusive royalty bearing licenses”.

"companies are respecting our philosophy”

"As our software is open source, companies – as well as scientists – use it for experiments", says Alahi. "It is interesting to note that when they want to use it in their products, they approach us and ask to contribute through a license," he adds. "Even though we are making OpenPifPaf open source, companies are still willing to pay for a license - when they could have just tried to reproduce the code. This is a sign that industry respects our philosophy and gives it credit."

Find a demo of OpenPifPaf here.
Are you interested in finding out more about the type of software licenses available? Check out our "choose the right license" webpage.