Article, April 2012
By Cal Esneault,
President of CCCC (Cajun Clickers Computer Club) and
leader of many Open Source Workshops & SIGs September 2011 issue,
Cajun Clickers Computer News
ccnewsletter (at) cox.net
We are all familiar with the term “copyright”. This is where a government grants to the creator of an original creative work certain exclusive rights to its distribution and use in return for the public disclosure of the work. There is usually a time period for this protection (for example, life of the author plus 75 years). Common examples are art work, photographs, and music. With a few exceptions (such as “fair use”), the copyright owners have strict control over the copying and distribution of such work unless they grant exceptions or specific permissions.
Although there is debate over the details, computer software can also be covered under copyright law. This can be more restrictive than patent law since “inventions” establishing patents require a more extensive proof of originality and usefulness and last for a shorter period of time (about 20 years). Proprietary software distributors solve any ambiguities by having users forfeit most of their rights immediately by requiring End-Use License Agreements (EULA’s).
Originators of the concept of Free and Open Software (FOSS) wanted to ensure that their free work and any subsequent derivatives would have legal standing to continue to be free in the future. They created the play on-words term “copyleft” for using copyright law to provide copyrights which ensured the free distribution of their work and any derivatives thereof. This gained the term “viral” protection since, with certain legal language, any product which contained any part of this open code would render the entire project to be free and open. Thus, this piece of code would propagate like a “virus” and infect any piece of proprietary code.
The first widespread use of copyleft was conducted by Richard Stallman for the GNU General Public License (GPL). There have been several GPL versions: 1. GPLv1 (1989) 2. GPLv2 (1991) 3. GPLv3 (2001)
In general, they allow the license recipient the right to use, study, copy, share, and modify the original code. Users must acknowledge the original author and distribute any modified software under the same restrictions obtained from the original license. The GPL license is the mainstay of Linux systems. The author has the right to have only parts of the software covered, or extend other limitations. The concept is that anyone using this “free” software is bound by its initial conditions as a minimum requirement.
There are alternatives to the copyleft approach. Copyright owners may freely give their rights away (“public domain”), or they may grant only certain rights (“permissive” restrictions). For example, Apache and BSD have permissive licenses, and, users may use this free software and then combine it with their own software to create a new proprietary work. This, for example, is how Mac OS uses an earlier open version of a Unix-type OS with their own handiwork to create their own proprietary operating system (which, of course, you readily agree to by checking acceptance of the EULA!).
To protect the legacy of open software, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was created in 1985 to ensure compliance with copyright protection established to maintain the open software conditions. They have attorneys to take legal action against anyone not following the open distribution of free software and also maintain a large set of copyrights and patents for community use.
Not everyone agrees that “copyleft” is the best approach (for example as no surprise, Microsoft Corp. objects to it). For example, inadvertently putting a small piece of open code into a large program could invalidate proprietary usage of the entire software package. Options exist, such as dynamic linking, which tend to minimize this problem. Future modifications of the GPL and permissive licenses continue to occur as technology advances and as originators of open source software seek to ensure its continuing legacy.
Click here to return to top