Thursday, April 17, 2008

A little more on copyrights

First, a big honking obvious disclaimer: I AM NOT A LAYWER. But you knew that. It doesn't say "lawyer" on my profile, it says software geek. Even if it didn't say anything at all, it still wouldn't say "lawyer". Unless someone can show you that they are licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction and you've engaged them to represent you, anything they say about the law is just an interesting bit of information.

Why beat that to death so obnoxiously? Well, first I don't want anyone running off and making an important legal decision on the basis of something I said here. Not likely, I understand, and not my fault if it does happen, but at least I feel better about it now.

While I'm at it, I should also disclaim that I'm going by U.S. copyright law, though international treaties ensure a certain degree of harmony among the various national laws. For whatever it's worth I have, at various times, included "Alle rechten voorbehouden" and "Tutti i diritti sono riservati" in source code.

More relevantly, though, it comes back to another point that Linus made in the discussion I mentioned. You can put anything you want in a copyright notice, but that doesn't make it legally binding. I could say "you may only run this application while you are thinking pure thoughts," but so what? Copyright law has nothing to say about such matters.

If you choose to write your own copyright notice or license agreement, understand that some portion of it is likely to be either redundant -- because certain rights and restrictions apply even if there is no notice at all -- or invalid -- because it asserts something contrary to, or simply not covered by, the relevant law. The GPL is now in its third revision and has been subject to all kinds of legal scrutiny. There's a reason so many people just use it as-is and leave the legal questions to the lawyers.

It's also worth noting that the heart of the GPL has to do with distribution, not use: If you distribute this, you must make the source code available and you must include this notice so that anyone you distribute it to knows what's up.

The other point I wanted to make is that a legal kludge like (in the case at hand) including a poem in a source code comment is likely to be as legally fragile as a comparable kludge in the code itself would be technically fragile. In this case, what are you protecting? If it's only the poem, then I can just take that part out. If it's the source as a whole, why do you need the poem? Again, I'm not a lawyer, but it sure doesn't seem like much to stand on.

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