Suppose a professor or student at a university uses software like Rosetta (a protein folding software) for their research. Rosetta has free academic licenses as well as paid commercial licenses available. The professor or student uses an academic license for their research.

Now, suppose eventually that professor or student discovers a new technology (e.g. they design a new medically useful drug using Rosetta). Is the professor or student allowed to patent their discovery and license that patent (or start a company that uses it)?

In other words, does the use of the non-commercial software license mean that any technologies developed using that software couldn't be monetized? Or does it just mean that nobody working for a commercial organization can use the software (a weaker constraint)? If the latter case, what would prevent companies from using small nonprofit proxy organizations to do research under the noncommercial license, only to then patent and transfer the patented technology to the main company?

  • 3
    The output of a program is a separate thing from the program itself. Just as an example, suppose I use an unlicensed version of Microsoft Word to write a book and I sell that book and make millions of dollars on the book sales. Since I violated Microsoft's license, can they sue me for millions of dollars? No. The damages, if any, of my unlicensed use of Microsoft Word relate to the program itself (the thing I copied), not my own creative output I produced with it.
    – Brandin
    Dec 7, 2018 at 5:41
  • This is why I really hate non-commercial licenses. I don't see why the researcher shouldn't patent the discovery and profit from it. There may be a suit from the copyright holders for damages. The Rosetta people would have no claim over the output of their program. Dec 7, 2018 at 16:15
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    Maybe 20 years ago Metrowerks sold a compiler with a commercial license, and you could get a copy for free with a student license. There terms were that you needed to buy the commercial license before taking any money for the software you wrote. You were allowed to try to sell it without commercial license. No idea how enforceable it was.
    – gnasher729
    Dec 7, 2018 at 19:43
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    @user334137 Usually you can be sued for statutory damages, or the damages can be increased as a penalty. It wouldn't be fair if you took my software without paying, and in the worst case for you I have to pay for lawyers and only get what you owed me in the first place.
    – gnasher729
    Dec 7, 2018 at 19:46

1 Answer 1


This depends somewhat on the terms of the license, in that a license might have language that prohibits such a use. But typically, academic licenses are pretty vague and only say that the use must be academic, or non-commercial. This does not preclude an author getting a $100 royalty, or a free copy of a book, from a paper that was published and use academically-licensed software. This is because the basic purpose of the research is academic, not product-development – though many purely academic inquiries turn out to be marketable, and there might be a nice payoff from some line of research.

Universities often have rules that prohibit workarounds such as you propose (the university will try to lay claim to the patent).

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