License vs. Copyright

In a follow up post to my attempt at explaining the GPL, it has become clear that there is one more very important thing that can still trip users up in trying to understand the GPL; and that is the difference between the software's license, and its copyright. These two concepts are often conflated, because in some respects they are related, but they have very different meanings, and convey very different rights to the people that hold them.

Copyrights and licenses are similar in that they both convey, or give specific rights to the people that hold them. Copyrights can only to be held by the people who create something, or to quote Wikipedia:

Copyright is the set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work.

A license on the other hand, encapsulates the rights and privileges that a copyright holder grants to someone else vis a vis something they have created. In the world of software the license defines the terms and conditions of someone else's usage of that software, and their rights with regards to their ability to copy and redistribute that software.

Let's look at some simple examples:

  • Let's say I create a piece of software. If I chose to make that software available to others, than I should construct a license that defines for the people I give the software to what it is they can and cannot do with that software. While silly, granted, I could for example tell all the people I give the software to that they cannot use the software on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is completely arbitrary obviously, but as the copyright holder of the software, that is my right.

  • Let's say I create another piece of software, but instead of writing my own license, I turn to the Internet to help furnish a license for me. Why would I do this? Probably because I don't have the expertise to necessarily think of all the loop holes one of my customers might exploit to give away my software to others, or to potentially harm my business by suing me. So I find the template of a pretty standard software license, fill in the blanks, and use that. Done and done.

Alternatively, I could search the Internet and stumble across another license I am free to use with my software. This license is called the "GPL." It conveys a very different set of rights and privileges to the folks who download my software, but hey, the terms of the license suit me, so let's use that.

The Importance of Copyright in Open Source Software

Copyrights in open source software can add a new dimension of confusion, because in open source software where lots of different, unrelated people are collaborating to build something, it is quite possible that a single piece of open source software will have multiple copyright holders. Why is this significant?

Well, let's suppose that piece of software I wrote up above, you know the one that I licensed under the GPL? Well let's suppose it over the years two folks contributed heavily to the software: Jane and Susan. For the pieces they have written and contributed back to the software, they own the copyright. So now, the software that I created originally, is now in effect, jointly owned by me, Jane and Susan.

Then one day, out of the blue, I get a call from someone and they say: "Listen, I love your software and want to use it for my business. I am willing to pay you $1,000,000 for you to support my usage of the software, but I my company does not like GPL. Can you grant me a different license than the GPL?"

Holy moly that is a lot of money. Of course I want to say, "yes, yes, yes!" But I cannot change the terms under which I distribute the software unless I get the permission of every copyright holder. Jane and Susan may not mind changing the terms under which their contributions are redistributed, but they might also want to share in that $1,000,000. Heck, I would too if I were them. And that is just something I would have to work out with my fellow copyright holders if I wanted to see any of that $1,000,000.

Now in this example, relicensing the software is a very tractable possibility because the number of copyright holders is so finite. But for a piece of software like WordPress, this would be a virtually impossible proposition, because in order to change the license of WordPress, one would have to obtain the consent of virtually every single contributor WordPress has known. And if one person says, "no," then you are S.O.L.

This is why software organizations (like the Free Software Foundation) and companies (like Six Apart) who manage open source software require every contributor to assign the copyright of their creation back to them. That way there remains a single copyright holder thereby making future licensing decisions very easy to make and execute.

Copyright vs. Ownership

One final note. While writing this I found myself using the term "ownership" as a direct synonym to copyright. But I stopped myself because I realized that doing so might further confuse people as the term "ownership" will often imply a different set of rights. Consider this:

When I go to Best Buy and purchase a copy of Avatar on DVD, what do I actually own as a result? What I own is a physical disc and the right (or license) to watch its contents for my personal entertainment. All other uses are strictly prohibited.

In a certain number of years however, the copyright for Avatar will expire, and my rights vis-a-vis the DVD's contents will greatly expand. Once copyrighted material passes into the public domain, one is immediately free to copy, mix, re-mix, perform, and do what ever they want with it.

The DVD itself, the physical medium on which the movie is transmitted, would still be mine, exclusively; and the movie itself would still be owned by Twentieth Century Fox, but they would no longer exclusively possess the right to dictate to me (and others) how, when and under what circumstances that movie could be copied, performed and distributed. In this way ownership is perpetual, and copyright is not.


Hopefully, for the people who have stumbled across this blog post, this has helped you better understand some of the nuances between copyright and and software licenses. Please keep in mind though, that while I consider myself to be reasonably informed on these subjects, I am not a lawyer.

This blog post is owned by Byrne Reese and licensed under the Create Commons.

Recommended Entries

1 Comment

Changing the license in an open source project is hard as you say. Some years ago the Mozilla Foundation wanted to move from licensing code solely under the Mozilla Public license to a GPL/LGPL/MPL tri-license arrangement. This meant tracking every code modification and getting the permission for each contribution. It took several years and in some cases meant code had to be re-written.

Leave a comment

what will you say?

Recent Comments

  • Changing the license in an open source project is hard as you say. Some years ago the Mozilla Foundation wanted to move from licensing code solely under the Mozilla Public license to a GPL/LGPL/MPL tri-license arrangemen...