Licensing Policies, Principles, and Resources

Some examples of how government has addressed open licensing questions.

Grants and Grantees Solicitation and Agreement Clauses

Department of Labor

This is a policy requiring a grant’s recipients to license to the public all new content created and modified with grant funds using a Creative Commons Attribution license. The policy is designed so that the investment of grant funds has as broad an impact as possible, maximizing the value of materials developed and offered through the grant program by encouraging innovation in the development of new learning materials. The Creative Commons Attribution license ensures that materials developed with funds provided by these grants result in work that can be freely reused and improved by others and was chosen because it is a globally recognized standard that gives members of the public broad permission for reuse, as long as credit is given to the creators, as directed by licensor.

The policy also requires that the grantees release all software code created with the funds under a license that allows others to use and build upon them and that all grantees must release all new source code developed or created with the grant funds under an open license acceptable to either the Free Software Foundation and/or the Open Source Initiative.

Grant Solicitation Language with Open Licensing Requirement

Department of Education

Federal Register notice inviting applications and putting applicants on notice that a term and condition of grant awards that contemplate creation or modification of curricular or educational materials will require grantees to grant an open license to the public that enables free use and reuse of all materials with attribution, in order “to ensure that the Federal investment of these funds has as broad an impact as possible.” Source code excepted.

Best Practices Language for Making Data “License Free”

Civil Society

An open letter on licensing best practices developed by a collaboration of civil society groups —, Creative Commons, the Sunlight Foundation, the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Public Knowledge — inspired by the Open Data Policy. It includes model clauses from across the government, to address a range of works and situations: e.g. US government works, contractor-created works, click-through agreements, and software. The letter is hosted at which is not an organization, but a shared commons of data and tools for the United States - made by the public, used by the public. It is managed through GitHub, and intended to be regularly updated.

U.S. Open Data Action Plan

The U.S. Government

Commitments that the U.S. Government has made to advance Open Data, and selected examples of expansions, enhancements, and upcoming releases of data sets in categories of the Open Data Charter. The license for each forthcoming data release are detailed; the listed data sets are primarily 1) in the public domain, 2) to be released into the public domain through a “CC0” or Creative Commons Zero public domain dedication, or 3) to be released under a “CC-BY” or Creative Commons Attribution license that permits any form of reuse otherwise regulated by copyright provided that downstream users give appropriate credit as directed by the licensor.

Model Terms of Service for Open Data APIs


A model Terms of Service document for APIs (Application Programming Interfaces, which is how systems talk to each other). The model Terms of Service covers several key areas, including limiting agency liability, providing avenues for rate limiting to protect IT resources from abuse, and ensuring that the public domain aspects of data are preserved. The model Terms of Service is currently a work in progress and is available on GitHub in a generic format that any agency can use or contribute to. Extensive feedback and comments have been provided by a number of individuals both inside and outside government, including representatives from GSA, the Sunlight Foundation, and GitHub. A parallel effort, which included review of 24 government APIs, is documented here

Department of Defense Open Source Software Policy Memo

Department of Defense

Guidance clarifying how existing law and regulations apply to the use and publication of Open Source Software (OSS) developed at the Department of Defense. The guidance addresses the use of open source software and the release of government-developed software as open source. In particular, the guidance explains that Open Source Software meets the legal definition of “Commercial Computer Software” (48 CFR 2.101(b)), and the statutory preference for acquisition of commercial items therefore applies to OSS. Likewise, the legal requirement (41 USC 253a) to conduct market research for commercial items means that open source software must be considered in the acquisition planning process, and the memorandum further notes a variety of advantageous aspects for open source software that should be considered. With respect to open data, the memo notes that software source code and design documents are themselves “data” and thus existing guidance promoting sharing of data applies to software source code, and further notes that open source software licensing provides an effective model to achieve those goals.

The guidance provides a framework for the decision of the government to release software to the public (as open source), based on following three criteria: 1) the project manager or comparable official decides that it is in the government’s interests to do so; 2) the government has the appropriate data rights to release the software; 3) the release of the software is not restricted by other law or regulation, particularly export control under the Export Administration Regulations or the International Traffic in Arms Regulation.

Use of External Open Source Software Policy

Consumer Finance Protection Bureau

Policy that references legal and practical considerations in researching and procuring software, keeping in mind open source options.

Source Code Policy – Community involvement

18F (GSA)

This Source Code Policy, forked from the DoD/CFPB policy, includes a new “Community Involvement.” From the policy:

Community involvement 18F staff and contractors are encouraged to be active contributors to FOSS projects that 18F or its clients utilize, even if they are not wholly maintained or operated by 18F.

18F encourages gratuitous contributions to its open-source projects, whether it be code, commentary, bug reports, feature requests, or overall strategic direction.

Because all of 18F’s work is to be released into the public domain, forks or clones of our code repositories are free to be re-distributed into more restrictive licenses, even those that are not considered to be open-source licenses.

The public can use our code as the basis of wholly proprietary and commercial systems. 18F would appreciate that users of our code disclose its lineage, but 18F maintains no legal right to require disclosure. Notifications that our work is being used in a new system are always greatly appreciated.

Open Source Software FAQs

Department of Defense

An educational resource for government employees and government contractors to understand the policies and legal issues relating to the use of open source software in the DoD. Much of the information collected there is applicable to other Federal agencies. The FAQ covers a range of issues, including: DoD policy on OSS, general information about OSS, OSS licenses, release of government software as OSS, and OSS-like approaches used within the Federal government.

How to FOSS Your Government Project

National Security Agency & DoD CIO

A checklist developed at NSA to document the internal processes required to release government-developed software as open source software. It provides a detailed example for other agencies to use as a starting point. The original document contained a number of NSA-specific processes, the linked document is a “template” version that removes the specifics, and leaves just the outline and advisory material.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration ESDSWG Open Source Working Group

The National Aeronuatics and Space Administration (NASA) Earth Science Data System Working Groups (ESDSWG) are chartered to provide recommendations and guidance to the NASA data center community (missions, archives, etc.) in Earth science including standards, technical infusion, recommendations in open source and software reuse and in big data. The Open Source Working Group within this organization promotes the consumption and production of open source software, processes, standards and governance models throughout NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems. Work includes recommendations of open source licenses for NASA software projects, and case studies and use cases of leveraging licenses in both the consumption and production of open source software.