Open source proponents are for strong copyright protection

09 November 2008

Open source proponents get a bad rap when it comes to copyright. Often, they are called anti-copyright or copyleft. On some level, it makes sense. Open source software is advertised as being free as in freedom, and free as in free beer. Yet, when thinking about copyright law and restrictions, the last word that comes to mind is free. However, open source proponents are not actually anti-copyright. Think about it… They can't be. Copyleft or open source could not exist without copyright. Open source is actually a world away from what would truly be free in the world of IP, and that's the public domain.

Copyright laws enable the creators of open source software to make code available through an open source license (usually the General Public License). This license is what forces the users of the open source code to keep it open. In contrast, one could not force a user to make code in the public domain open even if one used that code to create a derivative work.

Thus, enforcing an open source license is really using copyright laws in full force. One is barring people from using code the way they might want to unless they agree to make the code open. That is clearly using copyright law to restrict the way one's work is used. It may bar some people from using the code at all. One might even argue that forcing code to remain open is more restrictive than keeping code closed, because people with closed code typically need not invoke copyright law. No one will ever have access to the code to be copied, so copyright becomes a moot point with closed code.

Thus, in reality, open source actually embraces copyright in its current form. It uses the protections of copyright more than closed source code does. It's not really anti-copyright. The only difference between open and closed source code with respect to copyright are the conditions being forced on the user. However, the restrictions are ever present in both. Open source restrictions utilize copyright to its fullest, giving the creator exclusive control over their work to keep it their code open.


4 Responses to “Open source proponents are for strong copyright protection”
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Morosoph said...

Not all in FOSS support copyright, and certainly not as it stands. Most would want a shorter copyright term for a start.

Furthermore, many view copyleft as a kind of Judo, turning copyright against its monopolistic intent. A practitioner of Judo does not support violence just because they redirect its force; they would rather have no violence at all.

That one makes use of the law for a particular and worthwhile purpose does not mean that one might not be better off being rid of the law altogether. Laws have costs and benefits, and to find a benefit does not negate the cost.

November 23, 2008 at 1:48:00 PM PST
Anonymous said...

I think you'll find that most of us do not object to the idea of copyright per se, but only to the unbalanced monster that it's become.

When copyrights can be used to bludgeon grandmothers and 12-year-olds for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, and every composer, documentary maker, and amateur short video producer has to worry about being sued for infringement because they used a 3-second clip of someone's work, and when a song or movie produced today won't enter public domain until your grandchildren are entering retirement, then you know that something has gone horribly wrong with the system.

Nobody wants to deprive creators of all control over or income from the the works they produce. All most of us want is a fair and reasonable system that allows us to express ourselves using the culture we all share without having to pass through the copyright toll-booth for every little snippet we happen to handle on the way.

November 23, 2008 at 9:24:00 PM PST
dtrizzle said...


Good points - and I mostly agree with your comments. My only observation is that those in FOSS have chosen copyright (copyleft) as opposed to the public domain. See Zen Habits blog.

Thanks for your comment.

November 30, 2008 at 1:19:00 PM PST

Your observations are correct. Copyleft licences do use copyright law to ensure the freedom of users.

But the question remains: Without copyright law, would copyleft licences exist? If all code were public domain, would there be a need for protecting freedoms?

February 9, 2009 at 12:31:00 AM PST