Author Topic: Open source code with absent author and no stated license - what would you do?  (Read 2475 times)

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Offline HwAoRrDk

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I recently came across a piece of software published on GitHub that could prove very useful to me. There are a number of bugs I have discovered, and there are a few improvements I want to make. However, the situation that has cropped up is:

  • The author seems to be absent or incommunicado. I have filed a few bug reports, and even a pull request with some fixes. But it has been a few weeks since, and no response to anything at all.
  • The software is not branded with any kind of licensing information. Not in readme, source code, etc. I assume it is meant to be open source, as otherwise the author would not have published it on GitHub, right? And I do believe the author intentionally did so - i.e. not some private thing made public inadvertently - because the readme file is very much written in a way that is providing documentation and explanation for other people.

So what do I do? I'm hesitant to fix any more bugs or make any significant changes or improvements without knowing how it's licensed, but nor am I able to find out due to lack of response from the author.

What would you do?
 

Offline SiliconWizard

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Isn't there any mention of a copyright of some kind in the source files? Is there even the author's name?
 

Offline voltsandjolts

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For commercial use, definitely avoid.
 
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Offline HwAoRrDk

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Isn't there any mention of a copyright of some kind in the source files? Is there even the author's name?

Nope, nothing at all. No license blurb, no copyright notices, not even the author's name, anywhere, in any files. ??? Which is odd, because some of the author's other GitHub projects do include this stuff - for instance, one other is GPLv2 licensed.

The thought occurred that maybe the author didn't actually write it and has stolen it from somewhere else and stripped all attribution, but I'm 99% sure that's not the case. The code style definitely fits with the author's other published projects (and in fact even reuses some stuff).

For commercial use, definitely avoid.

I plan to only make personal use of it.



The lack of response from the author is actually kind of annoying now, because I found today a fairly egregious bug that is a show-stopper for my particular usage, which I've fixed, but can't send in another pull request until the author accepts my existing one.
 

Offline SiliconWizard

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If the name of the author was in the source files, I would assume that copyright laws would apply by default.
Now if there is absolutely no mention of anything, I think you can safely assume it's in the public domain. But: the residual problem you get is that the source code might actually belong to someone else and might have been "stolen" with any mention of its origin removed by the "stealer". That happens. So even an absence of any mention is not proof it's in the public domain.

Now if it's strictly for personal use, frankly... do whatever you like. The question might be if you wanted to share it. But even so, the worst that could happen is that the author might politely ask you to stop sharing it. So yeah, for commercial use, I wouldn't do this, but for personal use, don't even fret about it.

As a side note to authors: beware of sharing any project with no mention of copyright or license of any kind. I don't know the minute details of the EULA for github, but I'm afraid that if you do this, the project might de facto belong to github (so, Microsoft.) Something to check for sure.
« Last Edit: April 22, 2022, 07:13:50 pm by SiliconWizard »
 

Offline edpalmer42

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How long has it been since the author was active?  You mentioned other projects by the same author.  Are any of them still active?

What kind of master rules does Github have in place?  "By publishing a project on Github, you agree to ........"

Regardless of any stated licensing, by publishing source code on Github you're inviting others to copy, use, and modify the code for personal use.  Otherwise, why post the code in the first place?

Ed


 

Offline HwAoRrDk

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If the name of the author was in the source files, I would assume that copyright laws would apply by default.
Now if there is absolutely no mention of anything, I think you can safely assume it's in the public domain.

I think that would be a bit of a stretch, especially in this case that the author is readily identifiable, albeit not mentioned explicitly within the work. I mean, the author's GitHub username is his full name.

I don't believe works can be assumed to be in the public domain unless either specifically stated to be by the creator, or published in a truly anonymous manner, although maybe I'm wrong.

As a side note to authors: beware of sharing any project with no mention of copyright or license of any kind. I don't know the minute details of the EULA for github, but I'm afraid that if you do this, the project might de facto belong to github (so, Microsoft.) Something to check for sure.

From a brief read of GitHub's Terms of Service, it appears that GitHub assume that you have the rights to any content you upload, and if you don't you're responsible for ensuring that content is licensed under terms that grant suitable permissions to do so, as well as to publish it to other GitHub users.

How long has it been since the author was active?  You mentioned other projects by the same author.  Are any of them still active?

The author was last active on this project about a year ago. Last activity on GitHub around mid-2021.



I was thinking about trying to track down the author outside of GitHub and maybe try and use some other means of communication (e-mail, etc.), but from a quick search all I can find are some forum posts by someone with the same username from, at latest, 2020. I'm a bit hesitant to look any deeper - don't want to give off stalker vibes if I'm successful... :-\
 
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Offline SiliconWizard

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If the name of the author was in the source files, I would assume that copyright laws would apply by default.
Now if there is absolutely no mention of anything, I think you can safely assume it's in the public domain.

I think that would be a bit of a stretch, especially in this case that the author is readily identifiable, albeit not mentioned explicitly within the work. I mean, the author's GitHub username is his full name.

If the account can identify the person who has uploaded the code, then ok, but that by itself doesn't mean that this person was the author of the work they uploaded.
That's the big issue there. Note that even if there were explicit mentions and licensing terms in the source code, that would still be no guarantee such mentions are legit. As I said, anyone can take source code and add or remove anything in it. That means squat, unfortunately. And it's a lot more common than one may think.

And sure, github mentions they don't want to have anything to do with that crap: they're assuming you either are the author of what you upload, or otherwise have sufficient rights to do so.
But as a user of someone else's github project, you have absolutely no guarantee.

There's no problem if you're using a well known project for which everything will be clear, but for more obscure projects, you never know. Which is why using them for any commercial use is like shooting yourself in the foot. But again, for personal use, I wouldn't fret about it whatsoever.
 

Offline thm_w

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Fork it, add your own fixes to your version, don't waste your time reporting under their version.
Maybe note in one of your bug reports, "fixed here" if you want to lead others to your fixes.
 
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Offline ejeffrey

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Fork it, add your own fixes to your version, don't waste your time reporting under their version.
Maybe note in one of your bug reports, "fixed here" if you want to lead others to your fixes.

This.  This happens all the time.  People upload code to github that solves a problem they have but once they aren't using or developing it they move on.  If it's useful for you, that's great.  Fork it and move on.  There is no sense going to extreme lengths to track someone down that clearly isn't maintaining an old project.

You can submit a pull request from your fork back to the original if you like.
 

Offline golden_labels

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Writing from my experience as a software developer.

First, to sort out the most important thing. That original author holds copyright over that work and to do anything with it you must obtain a license. Under Berne Convention, which is the foundation of copyright laws across the planet, obtaining copyright is automatic and requires no registration or other formalities. As soon as they created the code, they became the exclusive owner of their work and anyone must get a permission to do anything, unless covered by some exceptions in your local law.(1) So no: you can not simply fork it, as suggested above, or depend on whether they put a notice in the sources. The source being available is irrelevant here. You can’t take it, just like you can’t snatch a bag someone left in their car with the window open.

Which basically closes this case, if you can’t contact the author. That kinda falls under the concept of orphaned works, but recognizing a work as orphaned and using that in your defense are two different beasts. The latter is stepping on extremely thin ice even for old works. Using it for something that clearly has a living and still active owner is borderline suicidal, unless your local law makes very explicit exception there. If you suspect it does, consult a lawyer, not random people on a forum.

You may still try to determine the author by finding connections they might’ve had with other projects. You may also see if you can’t find the code elsewhere. Though tiny, there are chances they themselves copied it from someone else. Or that it is being developed by another party, which itself is big enough to take the hit and shield you(2) in case the original author wakes up.

On less practical and more philosophical part: that’s an unfortunate fallout of ideas being understood only superficially and hostility towards red tape. In the case of people who oppose copyright: not understanding, that the law still applies to them. That’s a story repeated over and over again, with people not being explicit about licensing terms and thinking it’s equivalent to putting your work in the public domain.(3) Not only it’s not, it makes the entire situation even worse. :(


(1) For example US fair use and counterparts elsewhere, de minimis rule, nationalization, emergency, specific exceptions for science, education and religion, and so on. Neither of which applies to your case, I suppose. Either because it simply does not, or because it’s not used for software in practice (de minimis).
(2) A random student, that forked it for their course project is not such an entity. More towards stable companies of reasonable size.
(3) Which, in many many places, can’t even legally be done. Hence Creative Commons 0.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2022, 02:43:49 pm by golden_labels »
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Offline HwAoRrDk

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Okay, I exercised my Google-Fu and found the guy's Reddit account. ;D

Last posted there about a month ago. Resides in the USA. Seems to be quite interested in cryptocurrency. Maybe he invested all his money in crypto, lost everything, and is now living like a hobo in a van down by the river... :-DD

Anyway, enough speculation. I think golden_labels has somewhat of a point. It would be foolish to invest my time and effort any further without clarifying both the copyright and licensing status of the project, so I think I'm going to wait a while longer and see if he resurfaces.
 

Offline Cerebus

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If the name of the author was in the source files, I would assume that copyright laws would apply by default.
Now if there is absolutely no mention of anything, I think you can safely assume it's in the public domain.

That is not how copyright law works, not in any country that is party to the Berne Convention (which is most). Copyright vests in the creator (or their assignee) as soon as a work is made, nothing needs to be done, no magic words need to be spoken or included in or on the work, and particularly there is no need for the creator to put their name on it.

Assuming it is in the public domain is the opposite of what one should do if there's no particular markings. One should assume that the copyright is the sole property of the (unnamed) creator unless you have a clear indication otherwise.
Anybody got a syringe I can use to squeeze the magic smoke back into this?
 
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Offline SiliconWizard

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If the name of the author was in the source files, I would assume that copyright laws would apply by default.
Now if there is absolutely no mention of anything, I think you can safely assume it's in the public domain.

That is not how copyright law works, not in any country that is party to the Berne Convention (which is most).

Yes yes. And suddenly everyone is becoming a specialized copyright lawyer.  :)
If you read everything I wrote, you'll see that I was being a bit more nuanced, then, than the part you just quoted.

There are a few things to consider here IMO, in no specific order:
- If you, as an author, share some work on a platform such as github which targets open source software, and you want to hold your copyright on it, and you leave it with no mention an no means to identify or contact you, you're an idiot. It's like leaving your front door open with a big sign "come in", and expect nothing bad will happen to your house.
- Open source and copyrights are for a large part incompatible. That's likely to trigger huge debates, but all in all, the whole spirit of open source that I've gathered and understood goes against the idea of copyright. So as related to the above, sharing something copyrighted on some open-source platform is sort of mind-boggling. I'm sure many will find no issue with that though. Who cares about consistency, right?
- As I explicitely mentioned, the person publishing some work on github may not be the author nor have any explicit authorization of the author to share it (unless it's explicitely open-source licensed, in which case the license SHOULD come with the work.) In that case, that basically means the person behind the github (or similar) account stole the work. Also as I said, it's unfortunately extremely frequent on those websites. There's a lot of stolen work with no means of knowing who ever did it.
- Which, as I also mentioned, makes using any such project, unless it's one of the well known open-source projects with no ambiguity, basically impossible for any commercial application, because you just can't know who owns it. There is a significant amount of projects in the same case as the OP's, but even when there's an explicit license, it's impossible to know whether it's legit or just stolen copyrighted work with an added license that the true author never intended to add or even knows about. A can of worms. So of course github doesn't want to be held responsible. It's almost intractable.

And with all that said, if again this is for pure personal use, wow. Are some of you serious for fretting? If you're really in doubt, just don't share your derived work until you know for sure where the original one was from and what kind of license it has. Keep it to yourself. Nobody gets hurt.
 

Offline golden_labels

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Yes yes. And suddenly everyone is becoming a specialized copyright lawyer.  :)
If you read everything I wrote, you'll see that I was being a bit more nuanced, then, than the part you just quoted.
One doesn’t have to be a lawyer, to know and recognize often repeated misconceptions. You know, I am neither an astrophysicist nor a geologist, but I could say that claims about Earth being flat are wrong.

- If you, as an author, share some work on a platform such as github which targets open source software, and you want to hold your copyright on it, and you leave it with no mention an no means to identify or contact you, you're an idiot. It's like leaving your front door open with a big sign "come in", and expect nothing bad will happen to your house.
Where you host your code doesn’t void your rights. Neither does “being idiot”, even assuming “being idiot” is a concept recognized by your local law. You don’t need to offer signing any particular contract to make your work protected, even if you show your work to others. A copyrightable work is protected just because it exists. No further conditions.

Publication on GitHub might imply anyone can see the code without obtaining a license, but the question is not about seeing it. It’s about creation of derived works.

Open source and copyrights are for a large part incompatible. That's likely to trigger huge debates, but all in all, the whole spirit of open source that I've gathered and understood goes against the idea of copyright. So as related to the above, sharing something copyrighted on some open-source platform is sort of mind-boggling. I'm sure many will find no issue with that though. Who cares about consistency, right?
Yes, they are very incompatible. Yet the law still holds, even if someone doesn’t like it.

As I explicitely mentioned, the person publishing some work on github may not be the author nor have any explicit authorization of the author to share it (unless it's explicitely open-source licensed, in which case the license SHOULD come with the work.) In that case, that basically means the person behind the github (or similar) account stole the work. Also as I said, it's unfortunately extremely frequent on those websites. There's a lot of stolen work with no means of knowing who ever did it.
It may be, which possibility has included in my response, but that doesn’t address OP’s problem in any way. They still need to obtain permission from the copyright holder. Also note that the publisher may be the author, but not the copyright holder.

- Which, as I also mentioned, makes using any such project, unless it's one of the well known open-source projects with no ambiguity, basically impossible for any commercial application, because you just can't know who owns it. There is a significant amount of projects in the same case as the OP's, but even when there's an explicit license, it's impossible to know whether it's legit or just stolen copyrighted work with an added license that the true author never intended to add or even knows about. A can of worms. So of course github doesn't want to be held responsible. It's almost intractable.
You can never be sure, no matter where you obtain your dependencies at. What matters is how well you can protect yourself in the case of a fuckup.  If you can prove that you were yourself a victim of a scam, it is a whole different story than ignoring copyright altogether. Which is why I mentioned finding someone, whose presence in the chain covers OP’s ass up.

And with all that said, if again this is for pure personal use, wow. Are some of you serious for fretting? If you're really in doubt, just don't share your derived work until you know for sure where the original one was from and what kind of license it has. Keep it to yourself. Nobody gets hurt.
Unless your jurisdiction has provisions in criminal law against using unauthorized software. Of course someone may be in a position where chances of discovery are very low, but do you think OP would ask how to do that legally, if that was their goal?
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Offline Cerebus

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Yes yes. And suddenly everyone is becoming a specialized copyright lawyer.  :)
If you read everything I wrote, you'll see that I was being a bit more nuanced, then, than the part you just quoted.

However nuanced your other points, it doesn't alter that your fundamental premise was opposite of what the law is, and yes, I do actually have some specialist copyright and libel training, my former publisher (the late, infamous Felix Dennis) insisted that all of his commissioning editors went on courses because "I've already spent enough time in court over things I've published, thank you very much!".

While it is highly likely that something posted on github is intended to have some more liberal license than naked unmodified author's copyright making assumptions is foolhardy. I wouldn't want to be in front of a judge trying to argue that there was some defacto implied licence in place just because it had been posted on github. In practice you're unlikely to get into trouble, assuming your uses are personal and assuming that the posting to github is deliberate and not an error. However, use it in a commercial project without permission and if the author takes exception you're in for damages of typically 3 times what you'd have had to pay for a commercial license. Heck, it's not beyond the sociopathic nature of some people to post it in the hope that happens.

I'll exclude the possible use-case of incorporating it into any other open source project because well managed ones would reject it as a submission precisely because there's no way for them to determine of it has a compatible licence to whatever licence(s) the project redistributes under.

Bottom line: Use it privately and don't redistribute it and I'd say they risk would be acceptable - technically unlawful, but given the source highly unlikely to cause problems. Do more and I think you're definitely on a potentially sticky wicket without getting clarification from the original author first. It doesn't need to be anything too formal, an informal agreement via email such as a "yes" from the author to the question "Is it OK if I redistribute this under XYZ licence?" is all you need.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2022, 10:17:24 pm by Cerebus »
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Offline magic

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For commercial use, definitely avoid.

I plan to only make personal use of it.
Just pirate it ;)
 

Offline newbrain

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IANAL, TINLA.
I'll just reiterate what golden_labels and others said:
No license means literally No License.
This is, in fact, the very first content slide in the FOSS licenses course I keep at work*.
You can look at the code - sometimes, it would be better not to - but definitely not use it.

There is only one point I beg to differ:
Open source and copyrights are for a large part incompatible. That's likely to trigger huge debates, but all in all, the whole spirit of open source that I've gathered and understood goes against the idea of copyright. So as related to the above, sharing something copyrighted on some open-source platform is sort of mind-boggling. I'm sure many will find no issue with that though. Who cares about consistency, right?
Yes, they are very incompatible. Yet the law still holds, even if someone doesn’t like it.
Actually I maintain the opposite: Copyright is the pedestal that sustain FOSS licenses, especially copyleft ones.
Straight from GPLv3:
Quote
Developers that use the GNU GPL protect your rights with two steps: (1) assert copyright on the software, and (2) offer you this License giving you legal permission to copy, distribute and/or modify it.
Without the intellectual property rights granted by owning the copyright to some piece of code, one would not be able to (effectively) impose a license.
In a world without copyright, we'd probably end up with either code in public domain (a thorny subject in itself: e.g., in some jurisdiction you cannot relinquish the rights to your work) or tightly kept as a trade secret. No nuanced liberal licenses like Apache or copyleft ones.

*We have a very good and thorough FOSS process, but my intro course is useful to give designers a rough idea if it's even worth it to put all the wheels in motion to use some source found in GH or similar.
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Offline bsdphk

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First, to sort out the most important thing. That original author holds copyright over that work and to do anything with it you must obtain a license.

This is absolutely correct, except for all the footnotes that goes with it.

In this case the author has put it on github, which indisputably amounts to "disclosure" in the world of copyright.

Once disclosed to the public, a lot of "strictly personal use" comes into play.

For instance you are freely allowed to sing the songs, hum the tunes and quote the lines when you have been in the theater, but you are of course not allowed to publish, print or stage the work and so on.  Lots of grey lines:  Can you sing the song for your kids ?   Yes.  For a friend ?  Yes.  For 5 friends ? Maybe...  For 10 friends ? Probably not...

Github allows other users to (trivially!) clone the repo, and the author is aware of this (it's in github's terms), and therefore putting a work on github tacitly grants a right of both "replication" and "derivation" in the sense of copyright.

Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that you can use the code for your strictly personal project.

But other than that: Nope, need the authors permission.
 

Offline SiliconWizard

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Without the intellectual property rights granted by owning the copyright to some piece of code, one would not be able to (effectively) impose a license.

Well well. Yeah. It's like biting its own tail here.
Since copyright is the default (at least in most countries, might not be completely universal, I'm not sure), you need to hold the copyright to something before you can give it up, which is essentially what an open-source license does.

What you're saying (and which is legally right, but still is by no means a way of contradicting what I said, which was that copyright and open-source were incompatible) is that you need a copyright to be able to give it up. But once you define an open-source license for some work, what is left (no pun intended) of your copyright rights? I'm genuinely curious. There may be legal subtleties, and I'm no lawyer (as most of us here I guess), but concretely?
 

Offline newbrain

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you need to hold the copyright to something before you can give it up, which is essentially what an open-source license does.
Nope, this is essentially wrong - I start to think you have a basic misunderstanding of the concepts here, don't worry, as you are in wide and good company.
Had I not needed digging (barely scratching the surface) into it, I would be with you.

An open source license does not in any way give up your rights.
This is so true that you, as the rights holder, can put a FOSS license on piece of SW and, at the same time, sell the very same code with a proprietary one or change the license at will.
Also, as another example, the FSF asks authors to explicitly transfer the copyright to them for some projects they maintain in order to simplify the handling.

OTOH, putting something in the public domain means abandoning your rights - note that this is not even possible everywhere (e.g., Germany, IIRC), so that SW in PD is usually frowned upon in a corporate environment, as there's no clear legal status for it and its rights: any license, even WTFPL is better than PD.
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Offline bsdphk

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An open source license does not in any way give up your rights.

Again, Any categorical statement about copyright is (almost) by definition wrong.

Any license, open or closed, will be "giving up (some of) your rights" because if you were not, there would be no need for the license to exist in the first place.

Depending on the precise text of the license (Open Source or otherwise) you may be "giving up" rights permanently, temporarily, for free, for money, for other "considerations", conditionally, unconditionally and so on.

To complicate matters, licenses may not be legal in all countries.  This is mostly theoretical for FOSS, but for specifically many countries do not have "Public Domain".

Having spent almost 40 years in Open Souce, my advise is:

0. If you need to, or feel like, spending a lot of money: Ask a lawyer.

1. If you just want to share your code as freely as possible, no strings attached, use the BSD license.

2. If you subscribe to the agenda of FSF, and you should research that first, use the GPLv2 license.

3. If you really want to prevent companies with lawyers from using your code, use GPLv3

4. Never use code without a proper license in any commercial context.

5. Never remove or modify somebody else's copyright or license, unless they explicitly permit you to.

6. Never write your own license text. (...said the guy who came up with the beerware license. (http://phk.freebsd.dk/sagas/md5crypt/))

In my experience, that will keep you out of trouble.

 
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Offline newbrain

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Any license, open or closed, will be "giving up (some of) your rights" because if you were not, there would be no need for the license to exist in the first place.
Mmmh, I see this as giving other the permission of using your work (in liberal or not so liberal ways, source or binary, according to the license), not giving away any of the rights you have on it (specifically, copyright was the topic): you are still holding them, and can decide to do whatever you want with it.

But yes, it's an oversimplification.
I think we are starting to go a bit into the philosophical/splitting hair field - we agree on the fundamentals (also, the PD thing).

Moreover:
Quote from: bsdphk, slightly reformatted
0. If you need to, or feel like, spending a lot of money: Ask a lawyer.
1. If you just want to share your code as freely as possible, no strings attached, use the BSD license.
2. If you subscribe to the agenda of FSF, and you should research that first, use the GPLv2 license.
3. If you really want to prevent companies with lawyers from using your code, use GPLv3
4. Never use code without a proper license in any commercial context.
5. Never remove or modify somebody else's copyright or license, unless they explicitly permit you to.
6. Never write your own license text. (...said the guy who came up with the beerware license. (http://phk.freebsd.dk/sagas/md5crypt/))
This should be carved in stone with gold letters.

For the OP: I do not use code without a license even for personal projects and as you did try to contact the author when I encounter it. I also try to stay away from GPLed code due to its viral nature. Though I'm not opposed to it in principle, when/if I publish a personal project I prefer it to use more liberal licenses (Apache or BSD) - GPL makes it impossible.
« Last Edit: April 25, 2022, 10:25:44 am by newbrain »
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Offline Cerebus

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Any license, open or closed, will be "giving up (some of) your rights" because if you were not, there would be no need for the license to exist in the first place.
Mmmh, I see this as giving other the permission of using your work (in liberal or not so liberal ways, source or binary, according to the license), not giving away any of the rights you have on it (specifically, copyright was the topic): you are still holding them, and can decide to do whatever you want with it.

Look at it this way around: By licensing another to make copies or derivative works of something in which you hold the original copyright you have given up your right (or power) to prevent them from making copies or derivative works.
Anybody got a syringe I can use to squeeze the magic smoke back into this?
 
The following users thanked this post: newbrain, sokoloff

Offline newbrain

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By licensing another to make copies or derivative works of something in which you hold the original copyright you have given up your right (or power) to prevent them from making copies or derivative works.
I agree, that statement was too strict - though the intellectual property remains fully with the entity holding the copyright, you are sharing some of those rights with the licensee.

Thanks all for the clarification.

Which brings an interesting, albeit probably purely theoretical, question.

The text of some FOSS license explicitly mention that the license is perpetual, e.g. Apache. Deal done.

Some other, like BSD, does not mention perpetuity.

As the copyright holder, I think I could revoke it (generally, or just to you because I don't like your t-shirt).
Would it be possible, and if yes, has something similar happened?

I'm not talking of termination due to non-compliance of the licensee (as can happen with GPL), but just unilateral revocation - I fully expect the practical effects to be null, TBH as the cat is already out of the bag.


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