OSS SERIES – A PRIMER ON OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE – Introduction to Copyright Law
First Publication Date: 7th January 2008
The Copyright law protects ideas expressed on a tangible form. Ideas by themselves do not get any protection; only the expression of the idea is protected under the copyright law. To get protection an idea should be expressed as literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, cinematographic or photographic work or a sound recording. Such an expression should be on a tangible form such as a paper, canvas, tape and so on. Expression in an electronic form is also considered to be a tangible form of expression. Software is protected under the copyright law as a literary work.
A copyright grants a bundle of rights to the copyright owner. The rights granted by the copyright may vary slightly based on the type of work being protected. All rights granted by a copyright are exclusive rights, which mean that no person can exercise such rights without taking the copyright owner’s permission. The rights granted by the copyright law include the right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, make a derivative work, publicly perform and publicly display the work.
Evolution of Open Source Software
The concept of ‘Free Software ‘and ‘Open Source Software‘ evolved in response to proprietary software and restrictions under copyright protection. Owners of proprietary software exercised exclusivity under the copyright law until the advent of patent protection. They released only object code or executable and used their rights under the copyright and patent laws to prevent users from accessing, distributing and modifying the source code.
Richard Stallman, a programmer at MIT, started the Free Software Foundation in early 1980s with the primary objective of creating free software. The objective of Stallman was to make the source code of software available for free distribution and modification. The words ‘free software’ was understood by the general public to mean that such software was free and cannot be commercialized. To avoid this confusion, the word ‘Open Source Software’ was coined by a group of software developers.
Open Source Principles
The Open Source Definition was drafted to design requirements for a software to qualify as Open Source Software. As per the definition, a software would qualify as Open Source Software if it complies with the principles. The open source principles are:
1. Free Re-distribution
The software can be distributed freely without paying any royalty. It may be distributed as a part of a compilation with other softwares from different sources.
2. Source Code
Source code of the software or its modification has to be made available during distribution. If the software is distributed in any other form, the source code for such software should be made available for downloading on the internet.
3. Derived Works
The software may be modified or improved and distributed under the same terms and conditions as the original software.
4. Integrity of the Author’s Source Code.
The software may be distributed with modifications. In such a case, the author may require the modifications to be included as ‘patch files’ or may require a different name to be given to the modified software.
5. No Discrimination against Persons or Groups.
Contributions to the software may be made by any person or group. There should not be any discrimination for contributing to the development of the software.
6. No Discrimination against Fields of Endeavor.
The software may be used by any one in any field. No restrictions should be placed on use of software in a specific field.
7. Distribution of License.
The rights granted over the software apply to all people who receive the software. The license under which a software is first distributed applies automatically to all persons to whom it is re-distributed.
8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product.
The software may be distributed under any stream of distribution or brand or as part of any product. All rights granted over the software shall not change based on the mode of distribution of the software.
9. License Must Not Contaminate Other Software.
The software may be distributed along with other softwares having different licenses. The license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the software.
10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral
The software may be used or distributed or modified on any technology. The license should not regulate or restrict distribution based on a specific technology or interact.
Open Source Licenses
The open source community uses the copyright law to further its goals of making the source code available through open source licenses. Author of an open source software claims copyright protection over his software but grants a license over his copyright with certain conditions that ensure that the source code is made available to every one who receives the software. By giving a license over certain rights and making the source code available, the author of the software provides the freedom to use, distribute and modify software. There are numerous open source softwares and numerous licenses governing their use and distribution. While every license has to satisfy the basic open source principles in order for the software governed by it to qualify as an open source software, the licenses differ from each other in a variety of ways. Though there is a common thread among all open source licenses, each one of the licenses has a list of flexibilities and liabilities when compared to other licenses. For example, the flexibilities under the General Public License (GPL) are different from flexibilities under Netscape Public License (NPL). The rights and flexibilities in an Open Source Software depend on the license that governs it.
Open Source Software and Business
Open source licenses provide enough flexibility to do business with open source software. A person may charge for physically transferring the software. While the source code to most softwares is easily available, companies pay for reliable, updated and virus free versions of the software.
Most open source licenses do not give any warranty for the software distributed under them. A person may add a warranty and charge for such warranty. In the same manner, a person may also charge for providing training, support or maintenance to an Open Source Software. Furthermore, business can also be done by providing customization and/or implementation services relating to the Open Source Software.
Today, most companies are using Open Source Softwares for a variety of purposes. While an open source policy and process is very essential to streamline usage of Open Source Software in such companies, a few models have been developed to help companies make decisions on use of Open Source Softwares. Such models provide the framework to make decisions on utilization of Open Source Software in the light of factors such as flexibilities, liabilities, support and so on.