Ken Brown kenbrown at
Thu Oct 24 18:34:44 UTC 2002

Ownership is control to me.  Courts would agree.  If you waive your
ownership, you waive your control...vice versa.  Copyright is control
whether you like it or not.  Second, I cannot understand how you can connect
the derivative works clause in the GPL to permissions and rights expected by
copyright enforcement courts in this country.

Lets say I write a code that disables the function of an F1 key.  Even
though its an error, I distribute my code under the strict terms that say
you cannot fix this problem.  I GPL the code.  The GPL says that owners can
make the modification.  Copyright or not, explain to me how I could possibly
forbid anyone from making the change?


-----Original Message-----
From: John Cowan [mailto:jcowan at]
Sent: Thursday, October 24, 2002 2:16 PM
To: Ken Brown
Cc: John Cowan; Sujita Purushothaman; license-discuss at
Subject: Re: Copyright

Ken Brown scripsit:

> Lets deal with this one at a time.  My first question is this-who does the
> code belong to once it is GPL'ed?  What entity, person, group, troll,
> whoever owns the code?

The question is not well formed.

Code, or any other textual work, is not "owned" in the same unitary way
that one can own land or own a toothbrush.  Instead, there are two people
who are relevant: the "copyright owner" and the "owner of a lawful copy".

The copyright owner is the creator, or the creator's employer in specified
circumstances, or anyone that the creator transfers copyright ownership to.
Initially, the copyright owner has five rights:

        To control making copies of the work
        To control distribution of the work
        To control the public performance of the work
        To control the public display of the work
        To control the making of derivative works based on the work

The owner of a lawful copy (that is, one whose copy was made with the
permission of the copyright owner) has all the other rights.  He may
use the work on one or more computers.  He may write a review of the
work, using brief quotations from it as a matter of fair use.  He
may destroy his copy.  He may do all the other things that owners may do.

Any or all of this can be changed by a valid contract executed between the
copyright owner and the owner of a lawful copy.  In the case of proprietary
software such as Microsoft Word, the owner of a lawful copy is tightly
restricted by the EULA, a contract to which he has (presumably) assented.
He can only use the software on one computer, gains no ownership rights
over the copy at all, and is generally bound and shackled.

The GPL is a declaration by the copyright owner that everyone, including
the owners of lawful copies, is allowed to copy and/or distribute the work.
In addition, everyone is allowed to make derivative works under certain
restrictions.  Making a derivative work is construed as assent to those
restrictions; if you do not obey them, you are usurping the copyright
owner's rights.  It is essential to the GPL that there be a copyright
owner to assert those rights (in court if necessary) so that misuse
can be prevented or punished.

So the nearest answer to your question is "The copyright owner is whoever
it was before; anyone can become an owner of a lawful copy."

(AFAICT, the GPL is called "general" because it applies to many different
works, and "public" because it is applicable to any member of the public.)


John Cowan  jcowan at
"In computer science, we stand on each other's feet."
        --Brian K. Reid

license-discuss archive is at

More information about the License-discuss mailing list