Friday, August 15, 2008

If You Give Your Product Away for Free, Can You Still Sue for Copyright Infringement?

The short answer is a resounding YES.

Yesterday, as this Wired article describes, a U.S. Appellate Court ruled "that even software developers who give away the programming code for their works can sue for copyright infringement if someone misappropriates that material".

This has far-reaching consequences for the Free Software and Open Source movements. The whole idea behind "open source" is that programmers create a piece of software, then release it to the world for free. As the maxim goes, this refers to "free as in free speech, not free beer". They often do this in order to get assistance or technical advice from other programmers. All they typically ask for in exchange is that anybody who modifies the code must re-release their modifications as "open source" as well.

What is at issue is whether, when a programmer releases their code as "open source", they retain any rights over that material afterwards. For instance, if I publish my source code to the world, and then a company modifies that code to sell it for-profit, and they don't re-release their modifications, then can I sue that company for millions?

The courts now officially say, yes I can. In an emphatic statement, the court proclaimed that "the lack of money changing hands in open source licensing should not be presumed to mean that there is no economic consideration."

This ought to be quite a boon for both the Free Software and Open Source movements (which, while often overlapping, are different entities). It vindicates the efforts of all those programmers who focused on actually solving problems, and it fosters the future growth of both movements by establishing strong legal protections for developers and, as a result, protects derivative works as well.

In the end, we all win. Better software will be created, and those responsible for it can't be so easily taken advantage of.


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