[SciPy-dev] why copyright at all?

Joe Harrington jh at oobleck.astro.cornell.edu
Thu Nov 1 15:18:32 CST 2001

There are two clear sides to this problem.  On the one hand, having
many copyright holders makes it hard to change distribution terms.  A
future lawsuit, even against a completely different entity, might make
it necessary to change or add terms to the license.  However, having
another individual hold the copyright to code I wrote is problematic
to me.  The code is then his or her property.  What if he goes
bankrupt, and a creditor seizes his intellectual property, puts a
commercial license on future versions, and seeks payment from all
SciPy users to continue having that module maintained?  We'd fork the
development tree, and then we'd have the first problem.  See SSH for a
more sinister version of the same thing.

In the debate over copyright, we often forget that there is another
option, one more than two centuries old: the public domain.  Yes, with
a PD product, anyone can grab it, modify it, and copyright the
results.  We can still do our thing, and ignore the interloper.  I
claim, based on the nonexistence of Digital, Apollo, Stellar, Ardent,
Stardent, and a host of other companies that any of you can name, that
open-source development will compete handily with commercial
development, given more than a tiny audience.  This is not the
mid-1980s, when RMS and his small crew started openly challenging the
computational giants, and were afraid of being squashed like so many
bugs.  Open Source works.  We ourselves have taken on Kodak (IDL),
Matlab, and Wolfram (Mathematica).  So, what are we worried about?
That they will "steal" our free code and incorporate it into their
products?  Let them, it will be good for science!  Our goal should not
be to bring them down, but to improve the offerings available to all.
Ours will happen always to be free.  Look at the boom-and-bust of
e-commerce to see how the market responds to pricy substitutes for
free products.

An alternative solution for the problem of patches would be for the
patch creator to place the patch in the public domain.  SciPy then
picks up the patch and incorporates it, copyrighting the derived work.
The author retains the right to use the patch, even if the terms of
the license change against his or her liking.  So does everyone else
in the world.  Isn't that what we all want?

Go PD!


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