Skip to main content
Northwestern University

FAQs for Software and Other Copyrightable Works

If you have other copyright or software-related questions, please contact INVO

What can I copyright?

Copyright protection subsists for “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”  Examples include:  literary works (e.g., books, plays, poems, articles, software, etc.), and other works, such as film, music, and paintings.

Copyright is a specific form of intellectual property protection that protects the fixed expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. 

If I copyright something, what rights do I have?

A good resource for further information is the FAQ section of the United States Copyright Office website, but generally speaking, here are the main rights an author has for their copyrighted work:

  1. the right to reproduce the work;
  2. the right to prepare derivative works based on the original;
  3. the right to distribute copies to the public;
  4.  the right to perform the work publicly; and
  5.  the right to display the work publicly. 

How is “software” defined?

The term "software" is used to designate computer programs that comprise a series of instructions or rules that allow or cause a computer or other device to perform specific operations or series of operations.  It may include:

  1. source code;
  2. algorithms; or
  3. other design details necessary to the operation of a computer program.

When is software protected by copyright vs. patenting?

Computer software is automatically protected by copyright once original code is written. This means that once it is created, you do not need to do anything additional, such as register it, because the code is copyrighted once you write it. Since copyright protection only covers the original work as it is written, new copyrighted work is created when changes or updates are made.  It is therefore good practice to clearly document dates as code is further developed or when new iterations or versions are created.  By holding a copyright for software, you limit others from copying, using, or distributing software code without permission.

Patenting software is a different matter.  Software may also contain functional aspects. Therefore, in some cases, it may be possible to file a patent to protect certain features of the software so long as specific legal requirements for patent eligibility are met.  In this case, a formal patent application would need to be filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office.  If rights to a patent are granted for software, the patent-holder can prevent others from making, using, or selling a product that performs the same function that is protected under the patent, even if others write their own code. 

 Once you disclose software, INVO will work with you to help decide if a patent should be filed to protect functional aspects of the software. Please see the next section for more information.

How do I disclose software? How does INVO decide how it will be protected?

If you would like to disclose software, or a unique process or algorithm, please complete the INVO Software Disclosure Form. INVO will assess the information provided in the disclosure and ask for follow-up information, if necessary, to aid with the review of the disclosed works. 

Once an assessment is made, INVO will discuss intellectual property protection strategy, as well as potential commercialization and licensing strategies with the principal investigator and authors of the software. Decisions for particular protection strategies or marketing strategies will be done in conjunction with input from the principal investigator and developers.  If necessary, our office may consult with outside counsel to decide on the best course of protection for a particular software disclosure.

How do I disclose copyrightable work that is not software?

If you are disclosing other copyrightable works, such as questionnaires, assessments, curricula, video, or music, please complete the INVO Copyright Disclosure Form.

How does INVO license software or other copyrightable works?

INVO works with software creators or authors to license their software or copyrighted works using a variety of license terms and structures, depending on the most appropriate business and distribution model for a particular project. In addition to traditional licensing approaches used to commercialize technologies, INVO uses distribution strategies which include online click-licenses and no-fee distribution of materials and/or software to non-profits.

If I use Open Source code, how might this impact intellectual property rights in my software?

If software was created using an open source license, or if software includes open source code or any other material (including links) not created by a Northwestern author, these details must be included in the INVO Software Disclosure Form. If your software was developed under a sponsored research agreement, including a government sponsor, or other funding arrangement, please include a description and/or name of the sponsor in the disclosure as well. These details will help INVO determine if there are any potential restrictions or third party interests that should be considered when deciding next steps for commercialization or development.

INVO can provide guidance to Northwestern faculty and staff regarding commonly used open source licenses and recommend a license that appears most aligned with goals and future development and release of the software. Please note that once software incorporates code that was subject to an open source license, the terms of that license must be followed for the new software developed using the open source code. Similarly, once software is released under an open source license, users of that particular software must honor the terms of the open source license under which the software was released. 

As a best practice, when starting or managing software projects, developers should start by defining processes that clearly and systematically document each time code is added from an outside source, such as an open source project. Documentation should provide a way that clearly identifies the portion(s) of code that were added from the outside source, the date, the location or website code came from, and the type of open source license the added code was covered by.

If I want to share my software or other copyrighted works with others, what are some steps that I can take to alert others that my work is protected?

When sharing software with others outside of your research group, marking code as “confidential” or "proprietary" puts the receiver of the software on notice that they should not copy, share, or modify it without permission from the authors. A simple, ‘terms of use license’ that can be included in the documentation associated with code, on the website where code is available, or embedded in the first few lines of the code itself is as follows:

PROGRAM NAME is copyrighted by the COPYRIGHT HOLDER NAME(S). It may be freely used for educational and research purposes by non-profit institutions and US government agencies only. All other organizations may use SOFTWARE NAME for evaluation purposes only, and any further uses will require prior written approval. This software may not be sold or redistributed without prior written approval. Copies of the software may be made by a user provided that copies are not sold or distributed, and provided that copies are used under the same terms and conditions as agreed to in this paragraph.

As research software, this code is provided on an "as is'' basis without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied. The downloading, or executing any part of this software constitutes an implicit agreement to these terms. These terms and conditions are subject to change at any time without prior notice.

You can also use copyright notice and marking for any form of written or printed works, including software.  Copyright protection arises automatically upon creation of an original work of authorship. Therefore, use of a copyright notice is not required, but marking works alerts others that the work is protected by copyright. If used, a copyright notice should include the author's name(s), the year of first publication, and the copyright symbol. For example:

© 2010, Donald G. Author

© 2010, Northwestern University. All rights reserved.

Note that year should not be updated each time a work is printed, copied or published; rather, the year that the work was first published should be used. For more information related to using copyright notices, please see the United States Copyright Office Copyright Notice Circular

Back to top