Everything You NEED to Know About Software Copyright and Licensing-to-Share in 2 Minutes

Jun 12

Written by: Stephen Walli
6/12/2013 1:08 PM  RssIcon

  1. Software is protected by copyright law in the U.S. and many other countries.
  2. Anyone that wrote the software, owns the copyright and can say how it is used.  [NOT saying how it can be used does NOT remove your responsibility as the owner, even if you don't care.]
  3. People sometimes give up their copyright ownership to the software they write in their employment agreements.  [If you didn't read your employment agreement, you're probably not a professional software developer.]
  4. If you want to liberally share your software with others so they can use it for anything, there are a few well-accepted SIMPLE licenses (Apache 2.0, BSD, MIT).  These essentially say:
    • Do whatever you want with the software.
    • Don't claim my work as your own.
    • Do give me credit for my work.

It takes about two minutes each to read the Apache 2.0, Berkeley, and MIT licenses.  Pick one.  They are good enough for one of the most successful collaborations we have witnessed in the short history of software development, and for two institutions for higher learning recognized for their contributions to computer and software technology.  These licenses were written by lawyers that understood software copyright law and liberally sharing software.  Apache Software Foundation projects are powering the growing business ecosystems of cloud computing, and have successfully powered the rise of the web for 15 years.  No lawyer you hire will do better.

If you live on GitHub, it will take you less time than reading this post to visit the appropriate OSI URL, copy the text, and paste it into a LICENSE file in the top of the tree with the appropriate minor edits for date and project name.

If you care about software freedom, then you are admitting you have already probably read more on the topic than the average developer, and can go refresh yourself on the excellent Free Software Foundation essays, re-read the GNU licenses, and choose appropriately.     

If you are trying to "make money" from your software, then you are admitting

  • you need to involve a lawyer in your business,  or
  • spend enough time educating yourself on the business tools available in your chosen profession.  A very good reference for developers is Van Lindberg's Intellectual Property and Open Source

If you think you need an opinion on software patents, re-read the previous paragraph.

That's it.  There's the two minute course.  If you read quickly, it was over faster.

Any other discussion is window-dressing or whining, and just plain unprofessional if you write software for a living or for other people to use.  If you want folks to use your software, license your work.  Writers do it.  Artists do it.  Engineers and architects do it.   So should you.

2 comment(s) so far...


Re: Everything You NEED to Know About Software Copyright and Licensing-to-Share in 2 Minutes

Consider that by licensing your software, you are also playing into a system that writers and artists have been using since before ENIAC was a twinkle in the eye. This is a system which has screwed over both those professions (and others; let's talk about IP in Hollywood, shall we?). Every decision to include a license with your software makes it more difficult for our children to get out of this system.

On the other hand, the above paragraph is nothing but whining. With the world as it is, you are absolutely correct about the rational and reasonable path to take. I wouldn't ask any business or organisation to not include an explicit license with their software. Yet consider this advice from George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

I don't license my personal software (created on my own time, for my own reasons) as an encouragement to others to also not license their software. I don't believe that IP is useful, I don't believe there is any long-term utility in perpetuating a status quo of copyrights by default, and I understand fully that I'm being unreasonable in this. Yet if enough of us are unreasonable, there will inevitably be a sea change (which we're seeing right now) that will either force a change in the relevant laws or make the laws irrelevant and unenforceable. That's a world that I want to live in, and that's why I don't explicitly license my software.

By James on   6/18/2013 11:03 PM

Re: Everything You NEED to Know About Software Copyright and Licensing-to-Share in 2 Minutes

James: Thanks for the comment! Your GBS quote is perfect. I fail on the too reasonable too often. I'm not sure I agree that ignoring the law is the right unreasonable course. I definitely think applying copyright to software was the wrong idea but probably "right" at the time. A terrifying argument in the reverse was done by r0ml a few years ago at OSCON:

I look forward to seeing a change in the laws, but apparently I'm not angry enough to fight to change them.

By Stephen Walli on   6/19/2013 10:29 AM

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