Samuel Reynolds samuel_reynolds at
Tue Nov 6 17:05:45 UTC 2001

> -----Original Message-----
> From: DeBug [mailto:debug at]
> Sent: Tuesday, November 06, 2001 10:29 AM
> To: license-discuss at
> Subject: copyrights
> One more question
> If i decide to do not copyright my software
> does it mean that someone else can later copyright it
> In other words do i have to explicitly state -
> -- 
> Best regards,
>  DeBug                          mailto:debug at
> --


In the USA, one automatically holds copyright on
any original expression--such as a program you write.**
Common usage for placing a copyrightable work in the
public domain is something like "this work is hereby
placed in the public domain."

The above is, as far as I know, the nearest you can
get in the USA to "decide to not copyright." However,
it is unclear whether this is actually valid in
USA law.

Otherwise, all works eventually pass into public
domain when the term of their copyright expires.
This used to be much shorter, and I don't recall
the exact term, but for practical purposes in the
software field it can be treated as forever.

If a work is not in the public domain, the author
retains all rights under copyright law, but the general
public has certain (but rather fuzzy) rights under the
doctrine of "fair use". These "fair use" rights include
such things as excerpting for purposes of review and
markup or modification for strictly personal uses. "Fair
use" rights do not include redistribution or the creation
and distribution of derivative works. (Note that derivation,
in copyright law is *NOT* the same as derivation in OOP!)

If a work is in the public domain, *ANYONE* can take a
copy of the work, make a single trivial change to it, and
claim copyright in the result. The original, public-domain,
work remains public domain, but the modified work does not.
In discussions of open source licenses, this is sometimes
referred to as "taking it private."

In effect, this means that anyone, or any any MonopoliStic
corporation, can glom onto any public domain material as a
starting point and create a proprietary derivative work.

Further, it is not clear whether the original author of a
public domain software program would be subject to liability
litigation if the program (or a derivative created by a third
party) were used in a critical application (e.g., life support)
and something bad happened (e.g., someone died).
By retaining copyright and providing liberal licensing terms,
the author can permanently attach disclaimers of liability to
the software, to avoid this last issue.

Some licenses allow the licensed software to be taken private.
Software licensed under the BSD license, for example, can be
taken private, but the license disclaims all liability. The
Artistic License allows derivative works to be taken private,
but, again, disclaims liability.

Some licenses do not allow derivative software to be taken
private. The extreme case of this is the GPL, which requires
that all derivative works also be licensed under the GPL.

Hope this helps. Please keep in mind that this is *my*
understanding of the issues involved; it is neither
definitive nor exhaustive of the topic.

** More generally, the copyright holder holds the copyright.
   It is usually the author, but may be another legal entity
   in the case of work-for-hire, or may be an assignee.

- Sam

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