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What if it were you instead of Linus?

by grantm (Parson)
on Mar 11, 2004 at 08:47 UTC ( #335748=perlmeditation: print w/ replies, xml ) Need Help??

Much of the FUD that SCO's been throwing around recently comes down to: "how can Linus prove that he is legally entitled to use all the patches that have been contributed to Linux"? What if someone were to ask you the same question about your CPAN modules? Well this week, it happened to me.

I got an email from IBM that began:

We are very interested in using your open source package, XML-Simple, as part of an IBM software solution. Can you help us understand who actually wrote the original XML-Simple code and whether any contributions were accepted thereafter?

The list of questions that followed included:

  • Could you indicate how it is that you have all the rights to distribute the code under the Perl 5 Artistic license?
  • Do you have a process of checking that contributors have the rights to contribute their contributions and that they provide those same rights to you?
  • If contributors are employed, how do you confirm that their employer has permitted the contribution?
  • Who did you work for when you wrote the code?
  • Did your employer disclaim any right to the code or otherwise approve of the contribution?
  • Is any of this stuff recorded?

Don't get me wrong, I can understand IBM's caution and I certainly don't mind being asked. As I see it, the 'worst case' scenario is that if they don't like the answers I provided then they simply won't use the code.

I'm interested to know what type of measures folks around here take to address IP ownership issues when they accept or provide patches. I've contributed patches to a number of CPAN modules and some other open source projects and no one has ever asked me for a declaration on IP ownership or a disclaimer from my employer. I guess the underlying assumptions are that you wouldn't contribute code if you didn't have the right to do it and if you weren't happy about it being distributed under the licensing terms of the main package. But then we all know what they say about assumptions...

Comment on What if it were you instead of Linus?
Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by PodMaster (Abbot) on Mar 11, 2004 at 09:28 UTC
    Hmmm, that's a pickle, and quite frankly, I've never thought about it (my employer does not own me, and I don't sign nothing).

    A lot of patches I submit are very minimal and I can't imagine any IP issues arising. A typical example is rt.cpan.org: Bug #5614 unresolved external symbol _get_elapsed.

    For my modules, I like all bug reports/suggestions/etc to be submitted via RT.cpan.org, so much for documentation I guess.

    All the bug reports and patches I've gotten so far have basically been a courteous "you've missed a spot here/there", not amounting to much more than someone pointing out a typo (which I do credit the author for in a Changes file).

    Do you really need permission from the person who owns you to point out a typo?

    Does IBM have any guidelines?

    MJD says "you can't just make shit up and expect the computer to know what you mean, retardo!"
    I run a Win32 PPM repository for perl 5.6.x and 5.8.x -- I take requests (README).
    ** The third rule of perl club is a statement of fact: pod is sexy.

      Does IBM have any guidelines?

      I considered asking. Then I thought "do I really want a comprehensive 12 page PDF in 6pt type that I have to mail to contributors and get them to fax it back to me with the requisite 7 signatures before I look at their patch"? I didn't ask.

      There is a concept in copyright law of a minimum size below which something cannot have been a copyrightable work. That bug report, in purticular, would appear to be well below the limit.

      If that is the case, it does not matter if you copied the bug report of someone else without having the right to copy (which is what copyright means, of course).

      Update: The second paragraph is wrong in it's reasoning: there is a certian minimum size, below which it is not possible to restrict the right to copy: everone has it, and it is impossible to lack that right.

      The interesting question, of course, is what is that limit.


      I am not a lawyer.

        There is a concept in copyright law of a minimum size below which something cannot have been a copyrightable work.... The interesting question, of course, is what is that limit.

        Well... it is an interesting question... I imagine it is highly subjective and depends on the individual case in question. There's one fairly public example: a certain haiku used for email certification. The basic idea of this system is that email senders would include this haiku in x-headers, and mail relays would only allow such email through. Then, the terms of use for the copyright liscense are, in effect, that the mail is not spam. Thus, if you send spam without this header, it will get routed off into the void, and if you do use this header for spam, then you are violating copyright, and, thus, remedies are available.

        It probably won't work, but it's an interesting idea, and it seems apropos of the question.

        ------------ :Wq Not an editor command: Wq
        There is a concept in copyright law of a minimum size below which something cannot have been a copyrightable work.

        Can you point me to any statute indicating this?

        There is a concept in the practical management of many projects that any patch below, say, 10 lines can be merged without worrying about copyright issues. I do not know of any court that has ruled this to be the case, though. And I don't recall seeing any lawyer comment definitively either way on it.

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by Jaap (Curate) on Mar 11, 2004 at 12:16 UTC
    Well part of the whole CPAN fun is everybody just contributing WITHOUT asking all these questions about IP. If i were you i'd help IBM as much as can be done in 1 mail & 10 minutes and let them figure the rest out for themselves.

    I hope this (and the whole SCO nonsense) will not trigger some IP rage amongst perlers.
      If i were you i'd help IBM as much as can be done in 1 mail & 10 minutes and let them figure the rest out for themselves.

      That pretty much sums up the course of action I decided on :-)

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by monsieur_champs (Curate) on Mar 11, 2004 at 12:55 UTC

    Maybe I'm wrong, and someone will gentle point me where. But this is what I think about the IBM's caution:
    If its Open Source, or Free Software (in the GPL sense), why bother asking all that questions? I can't understand why the SCO's nonsense should negatively influence the (?:Open Source|Free Software) development efforts arround the world. They shouldn't just "Keep It Simple", and use the software as I do (on a commercial solution, BTW)?

    On the other hand, about any IP disclaimer from whoever you works for, if it exists, should be respected. If it doesn't, what your employer or any other person can do against your IP rights?


    "In few words, translating PerlMonks documentation and best articles to other languages is like building a bridge to join other Perl communities into PerlMonks family. This makes the family bigger, the knowledge greater, the parties better and the life easier." -- monsieur_champs

      It could very well be that IBM would have asked with or without SCO making a fool of itself. Remember: IBM is huge and have been in business longer than pretty much any other "high tech" company. They have a very well-defined way of doing business. Checking on the copyright status of Free Software projects before they write significant code based on it seems a reasonable thing for them to do, even if SCO wasn't making noise.

      ----
      : () { :|:& };:

      Note: All code is untested, unless otherwise stated

      It is very easy for someone to think that they own IP rights that they do not, in fact, possess. As a result the copyright statement that you see often is written by someone with no legal authority to grant the permissions that that statement grants.

      If you are a company with deep pockets, like IBM, you are a more natural target for copyright infringement lawsuits than the person who made the mistake.

      IBM knows this, and learned a long time ago to be careful about copyright issues. SCO is a non-issue for this. They were careful before SCO hit the radar, and will be careful after SCO becomes the crater that it so richly deserves to be.

      Furthermore IBM far from alone. Go check out what is required to sign copyright over to the FSF. That isn't paranoia. That is just the necessary due diligence to be sure that you actually own the copyright that you think you own.

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by bhappy (Scribe) on Mar 11, 2004 at 13:05 UTC

    just want to remind about, IMHO, a very good post on the close subject.

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by zentara (Archbishop) on Mar 11, 2004 at 14:57 UTC
    I guess it pays to keep copies of all development copies of your software, so that you can show you independently came to your solution. It will totally stifle all Open Source Software if you can't use something you thought of, solely because someone claims they "have dibs on it". But maybe that is the ultimate agenda of Microsoft and SCO....destroy Open Source....damn them to HELL.

    If someone has some kind of secret code, they better keep it secret, because once it is leaked, it is as good as "common knowledge.

    There is an old saying in Philosophy..."There is no stopping an idea whose time has come".

    I think this applies to code...when a problem arises, many people come to the same solution, and usually when the "best syntax" is found, it all looks similar. It will be an ugly world, if we have to hire a lawyer everytime we release some code. And if it comes to that, then all development will move to locations which don't respect the "software treaties".


    I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth. flash japh

      If someone has some kind of secret code, they better keep it secret, because once it is leaked, it is as good as "common knowledge.

      This is essentially where Trade Secret law comes in. It's your work for as long as you can keep it a secret, but you lose it all if it becomes public. It's almost the opposite of a patent, which says (in theory, anyway) you have to detail everything about the work so that others can reproduce it, but you get to be the sole owner of the work for a limited time.

      There are a few bizzare circumstances where (for instance) the NSA has a trade secret on some encryption technique, but if it ever becomes public, they automatically get a patent on it. Also, RSA claimed a trade secret on the RC4 stream cipher for years, until somebody anonymously posted code for it on USENET. They sometimes threaten to sue people using it without permission, even though their trade secret protection is clearly gone (even though they would lose the lawsuit, no company is willing to pay to go through the court system to fight them). I haven't heard of recent examples of them doing this, though.

      ----
      : () { :|:& };:

      Note: All code is untested, unless otherwise stated

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by flyingmoose (Priest) on Mar 11, 2004 at 17:05 UTC
    Could you indicate how it is that you have all the rights to distribute the code under the Perl 5 Artistic license?
    This is a very legal question, I would not respond on it... seeing your responses might be used against you if you get anything 'wrong'. While it would be nice for your cool module to hop in an IBM product and have them make money on your code, it's not worth getting sued or contacted by an IBM lawyer.

    I have seen pseudo-similar legal questions about whether a PAR compiled executable is legal to redistribute without an ActiveState license. I asked that the parties asking contact their lawyers to find out.

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by perrin (Chancellor) on Mar 11, 2004 at 18:16 UTC
Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by demidog_dd (Initiate) on Mar 11, 2004 at 18:54 UTC
    I can see why IBM would want to use your code. It rocks. I use XML::Simple every day and it has saved me an enormous amount of time and energy. Thanks for putting it out there.
Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by jacques (Priest) on Mar 11, 2004 at 22:27 UTC
    I got an email from IBM that began . . .

    My response to these inquiries is always the same:

    Greeting Earthlings!,

    I am Zoogar, an extra-terrestial from a star system in another universe. A universe which has no copyright laws and only 2 dimensions. However it is etched onto a holographic surface and thus appears to have infinite dimensions (depending on how you squint at the holograph). But I digress...

    I am on your planet to learn all that you know. Not very much, I agree, so my stay shouldn't take more than a few nanoseconds (in my system's timeframe).

    To enhance my perception of you and your habitat I have found it necessary to temporarily assume control of a human. I chose as my vehicle, jacques, when I wrote that Perl module.

    I am now using the Internet to absorb all your information. Please supply me with more facts. I find facts very yummy.

    -Zoogar

    Funny that I never hear back from them again ...

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by CountZero (Bishop) on Mar 11, 2004 at 22:42 UTC
    Being a lawyer myself, I would say to be very cautious in answering their questions.

    I would answer something like "No. No. I don't. Company X. I have no idea. Probably not." and let their staff of over-paid lawyers find it out for themselves. Surely you do not want to give them the rope to hang you with later.

    CountZero

    "If you have four groups working on a compiler, you'll get a 4-pass compiler." - Conway's Law

      Do not ask a lawyer for advice, because they will say both "I don't know" and "hire a lawyer".


      Warning: Unless otherwise stated, code is untested. Do not use without understanding. Code is posted in the hopes it is useful, but without warranty. All copyrights are relinquished into the public domain unless otherwise stated. I am not an angel. I am capable of error, and err on a fairly regular basis. If I made a mistake, please let me know (such as by replying to this node).

        <ProbablyMisquotedTolkein>
             And ask not advice from the elves since they will say both 'no' and 'yes'.
        </ProbablyMisquotedTolkein>
Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by rdm (Hermit) on Mar 12, 2004 at 00:31 UTC
    (Minor plug) SAGE-AU set up the Open Source Developers' Agreement Initiative. They have a set of documents about this: http://www.sage-au.org.au/osda/index.html
    These are publicly available, and includes suitable agreements for most common circumstances. There is also an FAQ for employers.
    Using these will help prevent code that you develop for the F/LOSS world being accidentally claimable by your employer.
    -R
Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by ysth (Canon) on Mar 12, 2004 at 00:35 UTC
    I'm interested to know what type of measures folks around here take to address IP ownership issues when they accept or provide patches.
    I know that the Cygwin project requires a copyright assignment from anyone who provides more than a "trivial" patch. The assignment may have to include a statement from the contributor's employer as well. http://cygwin.com/contrib.html says:
    If your change is going to be a significant one in terms of the size of your code changes, be aware that you will have to sign over the copyright ownership of your code changes to Red Hat or the FSF (depending on the source file) before we can include your changes in the main source tree. Your employer may also have to send us a disclaimer stating that they have no claims to your contribution. This is necessary for liability reasons. Here is our standard assignment form for changes to Cygwin that you can fill out, sign, and send back. It shouldn't end up being that much of a pain. If you have any questions, please send them to the cygwin mailing list.

    Perl itself is completely lax in this area, so I find it hard to believe that they would require that level of diligence.

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by Ordinary_User (Beadle) on Mar 13, 2004 at 08:12 UTC
    Well, why not ask them why they want to know?

    But I agree, if it's Perl Artistic License, why bother with the questions?

    Unless they're trying to eat up CPAN, starting with XML-Simple.

    "May the forces of high bandwidth be with you."
Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by Jenda (Abbot) on Mar 14, 2004 at 17:21 UTC

    This all clearly indicates that the world would be a much better place if all lawyers were sent immediately to where they end up after death anyway.

    Jenda
    Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live.
       -- Rick Osborne

    Edit by castaway: Closed small tag in signature

Re: What if it were you instead of Linus?
by Anomynous Monk (Scribe) on Mar 16, 2004 at 19:47 UTC

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