We license your departure — If Nancy departed early, what gave here that license? What were the conclusions that Nancy drew?

In a prior post licensing issues that was inspired by a simple request from an editor named Nancy who sought permission to republish one of my blog posts, I observed that Nancy had probably not even read all of that post to realize that she had all the license she needed.

So here is the question. If Nancy didn’t read all the way to the end, then what were the conclusions that Nancy drew that led her to this decision?

It’s an issue that confuses many folks, so if Nancy got it right, I’m guessing she is a fan of the Nancy Drew mysteries, perhaps because the heroine is named Nancy.

So the question is now, what were the conclusions that Nancy drew, Nancy Drew being her inspiration?

If you go back to my reply to Nancy you will find the following phrase (emphasis added):

This should give you the permission you need. If it doesn’t, then you have it by this note.

That phrase gave Nancy unrestricted rights to use the blog post. I wrote the post, so I am the copyright owner, and the copyright owner — and only the copyright owner — gets to define the license for their work.

For example, if you own a piece of code, and then release it in open-source form, then doing so doesn’t limit your rights to the code.

This is a common practice. One term for it is “reference implementation.” You release the code but don’t accept any changes, and as long as only you make the changes yourself then you still have full ownership rights.

That is a key point. When you release code in open-source form the license doesn’t really kick in until you accept the first contribution. Then the license takes over. The only way to get around this is to acquire the rights to an earlier version, as was reported in the post What if? What not? Testing … testing … testing.

Another example. Most people probably believe that since MySQL is a widely-used open-source package, and that the company that has developed around it, MySQL.com, is based on that project, it is also an open-source company.

Howver, tt can also be argued that MySQL.com is a commercial software company. Just like Microsoft or IBM, it markets its code under a commercial license; that is its business. What most people think of as an open-source project is just the periodic publication of their code in reference form under an open-source license.

There is an easy way to test this hypothesis. If you dig under the covers you will find that MySQL.com employs all the developers. They have to, because they need to own the copyright to be able to offer that code under a commercial license.

Or if all the developers don’t work for them, then I expect that if you look into the way they accept contributions you will find that they request you sign over the copyright to your contributions. They might even say that are asking this as a favor to you, to save you “needless paperwork.” You will also find by digging into the past that they have purchased code for inclusion into their product. As I recall that’s how the acquired the code for the “innodb” engine. It is not common for open-source projects to buy code; much more commonly they solicit voluntary contributions.

There is an acid-test for this. Suppose write code that makes MySQL run 10 times faster in 10 times less memory. You wrote it all yourself. You have even published it on the web, so everyone knows about your magical patch.

You offer it to MySQL.com, but you refuse to assign them the copyright. If they accept it they won’t be able to incorporate it into their commercial code, because your patch would come to them under an open-source license.

So they can’t take it. So you simply make a copy of their last reference implementation, apply your patch, and distribute an offering that will cause real — perhaps even fatal — angst to MySQL.com. You may have a harder time making money, but at least you won’t have them around competing with you.

I’ve had prior experience in giving unrestricted rights. See for example the post Me Tube. It relates how I cause one web site to have unique authority in the display and use of the IBM logo.

And since the recent Sun / FSF alliance announcement of the release of Java in open-source form was not also accompanied by a statement that Sun would no longer be marketing a commercially-licensed version of Java, I bet that if you read through the agreements you will find that if you make a contribution to Sun/FSF then you will also have to sign over the copyright to your code, thus allowing the alliance to include your voluntary contribution in their commercial offering.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 3, 2006 at 12:03 | Permalink | Reply

    I already let anyone use my contributions in commercial offerings if I contribute to GPLd projects, since the GPL is the basis for a multi-billion dollar commercial software industry.

  2. Posted December 3, 2006 at 13:22 | Permalink | Reply

    The GPL is but one of the many open-source licenses in use today.

    It’s the code and the associated communities that matter, not just the license.

    Choice of license is a tactical issue. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

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