[Rd] Copyright versus Licenses

Simon Urbanek simon.urbanek at r-project.org
Sat Feb 13 16:00:23 CET 2010

On Feb 12, 2010, at 7:14 PM, Dominick Samperi wrote:

> On Tue, Jan 19, 2010 at 11:54 AM, Simon Urbanek <simon.urbanek at r-project.org> wrote:
> Copyright is the right that the author of an original work holds automatically (unless someone else can claim to own his work - e.g. his employer etc.) under the Berne Convention. The copyright gives only the author all rights - including but not limited to the right to copy, modify, distribute the work etc.  Licenses are used to give some of those rights to other people under certain conditions. Hence you cannot "assign yourself copyright" because you already have it (and if you don't then your cannot assign it). Also you don't need to give the "copyright" to anyone else - you can give certain rights to others using licenses -- such as GPL, LGPL, EUPL etc. -- but you don't give copyright by those since you have far more rights as the author (e.g., you can do whatever your want with the original work beyond the restrictions of the license). There are cases where you may want to give your copyright to someone, e.g., an organization that represents all authors of a project which makes it easier to change licenses etc., but that is a different story.
> Interesting, but what about the situation where a new author adds his name as copyright holder without them consent of the original copyright holder,

If the software is released under GPL then no one needs anyone's consent. By licensing the software under GPL you give everyone the right to modify and redistribute the software so anyone can modify it, add their copyright notices and release it.

> and with only one person making the decision whether or not this change is warranted: the new copyright holder?

The decision can be made by anyone because you granted everyone the right to modify and redistribute it by using the GPL license. This is equally true of any derivative works because GPL makes sure that even those must be licensed under the same terms.

> Doesn't this amount to giving the copyright away, or giving it away to everybody?

No, you give rights (to modify and redistribute) via the license to everybody, but not the copyright. As a copyright holder you can do anything with your original code (re-license it, use commercially etc.) but anyone else can only do what you specified in the license (so e.g. they cannot release it under a different, incompatible license - let's say BSD).

> GPL is often called copyleft for a reason: it basically cancels most of the rights that you would have with an ordinary copyright

No - it doesn't cancel anything - you still have all the rights. To the contrary - it gives some of those rights to others (everyone) under strict conditions (as opposed to let's say BSD which gives them with almost no conditions).

> so that others can freely copy your work with no requirements other than that your copyright notice be retained, along with a potentially unlimited number of other "copyright" notices attached to the same work. (For completeness, there is a clause about not leaving misleading impressions about previous authors, but in my opinion the only way this could be enforced is if the contributions of the previous author are not altered. But this is inconsistent with the broad freedoms granted by the main text of the license.)

Note that GPL license does not grant broad freedom - it is in fact one of the more restrictive open source licenses -- those restrictions are meant to force modifications to be contributed back to the community.

> The only "infringement" cases that I am aware of is where a company is sued because it tried to turn GPL software into a commercial product. This is what GPL was designed to do. It is not designed to protect authors (because that would be an attack on software freedom and apple pie, according to true believers).

Well, the authors need no protection in that sense since they have full rights. It's entirely with the authors to specify which rights they will give to others. You could, for example, grant everyone the license to use your software without any restrictions but prohibit re-distribution in modified form -- although that would not constitute open source software.

In practice this issue seldom arises as the whole idea of open source is collaborative development, i.e., it explicitly allows others to modify and redistribute the code. There is often at least a semi-centralized entity that represents a given product (be it just the software version control repository) and if someone likes the idea but wants to use it in a different direction s/he creates a fork and thus creates a kind of sibling. The idea in open source world is that this enriches the choices since users can use whichever of the two they like better, so there will be natural selection. Unmaintained or less useful branches will just die and the maintained ones will live on -- this happens very frequently and you can often find multiple branches of projects -- some work together with their siblings (e.g if the fork is to port it to another platform they usually merge back or contribute back once in a while) some don't. Clearly, the idea is that this is good for the community, not necessarily for the ego of the authors ;). Although your copyright notice will survive, your ideals won't necessarily.

Again, those are my personal views, they do not constitute a legal advice, I'm not a lawyer and don't represent anyone else ...


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