back to article John Lennon's lesson for public-domain innovation

While I've never thought John Lennon's Imagine offered a particularly useful prescription for peace, I am starting to wonder if it might not suggest something better than free and open-source software. When Lennon sings that if we can just "imagine no possessions" we'll end up with "all the people sharing all the world," he's …


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  1. nematoad Silver badge


    Oh dear. I think that I have just seen a way out for the likes of MS and Apple.

    Do the work and then give it away to those companies that are looking for hand-outs like this. They'll say "Thanks very much" and promptly wrap it in proprietary licences so that they can gain the benefits and not the people who did the work.

    Stallman may be obnoxious and rub some people up the wrong way but he's not stupid and if he had though that Public Domain would offer the sort of protection needed for people writing free software I'm sure he would have said so.

    No, the likes of the GPL are there to keep the sharks at bay. It works and no special pleadings on behalf of MS and Apple will change that. The code donated by free software writers is theirs and if they want to make sure that they get the recognition and keep some control over what is done with the fruits of their labour then far as I'm concerned that is their right.

    It may be that some good may come out of public domain stuff but experience has shown that if proprietary companies get the opportunity they will abuse it and behave like parasites.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No!

      "Do the work and then give it away to those companies that are looking for hand-outs like this. They'll say "Thanks very much" and promptly wrap it in proprietary licences so that they can gain the benefits and not the people who did the work."

      Yes, indeed. This is the lesson of BSD - you do the work and then it's taken by multi-nationals who use the profits to make software less and less open, with the eventual aim of making what you did (give software away) illegal.

      It's called "pulling the ladder up behind you". Disney did the same thing with copyright.

      1. Tom 38 Silver badge

        Re: No!

        I'm completely fed up by people not remotely connected to BSD telling the world what the lesson of BSD is. You've entirely missed the point.

        The purpose of BSD is to be re-used, by anyone, however they want to use it. This includes companies that want to take it away and don't share anything back - although, companies like this don't exist. Even the most evil of all evils, Apple, contribute back a huge amount of work they do on FreeBSD and FreeBSD related technologies.

        FreeBSD is the base for many closed source OS, typically shipped on appliances like IronPort. Guess what? These guys collaborate amongst each other, contribute fixes upstream, and even suggest architectural improvements based upon their experiences.

        Yes, BSD allows rampant copying of source code and relicensing, and anyone can use it for whatever purpose they want. This does indeed conflict with RMS' worldview, but its what we were aiming for in the first place.

        If you don't like it, don't use it, but please, for the love of fuck, please stop telling us that we haven't learnt our 'lesson'.

        PS: Agree with the article 100%. A technology is never truly free to use if there is not a free to use - for everybody - version of it. All the best, universal, technologies have liberal free licenses, eg libpng, libjpeg, openssl, openssh all have liberal licenses to encourage use of them in all scenarios, and to enhance interoperability between applications. The internet took off easily because most OS started out with a copy of BSD's TCP/IP stack.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: No!

          "If you don't like it, don't use it, but please, for the love of fuck, please stop telling us that we haven't learnt our 'lesson'"

          For the love of fuck, stop telling us that you don't have a lesson to learn when you don't even understand the problem.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Re: No!

      Mmm, I've been puzzled by this too, as it seems self-evident to anyone understanding the virtuous circle of free software as instituted by RMS that it is the fact that it has built-in good controls - the positive aspects of copyright - that make it so useful. But the trouble is, there's also good cause to trust Glyn Moody's journalism, which is usually superbly well informed and very thoughtfully written (can't comment about Matt's bro other than to state the obvious uncertainty one feels when faced with a lawyer's prognostications.)

      But I think the objective of the issue is just to note that in an ideal world, everything would be in the public domain, and suggesting that some brave folk may actually choose to believe, as a test, that we are in that ideal world. It does show the pragmatism and inventiveness of the GPL and other virtuous cycle licences, though, that they achieve an ideal in a decidedly un-ideal world. I would certainly find it hard to believe that Glyn, with his background, would suggest chucking it all on the hope that corporates suddenly behaved nicely.


    3. Eddie Edwards

      Re: No!

      > > They'll say "Thanks very much" and promptly wrap it in proprietary licences so that they can gain the benefits and not the people who did the work."

      The idea that your project fails *because people use it* is perhaps one of the strangest ideas to have come out of Stallman's head.

      The idea that you have lost anything because other people are using digital copies of it in ways of which you do not approve is strange, to say the least (especially when you don't charge for it).

      But the underlying idea that other people *should* only use your products in ways of which you approve - that this is something that is even desirable to enforce - is actually rather a disturbing notion. It's forcing your mind set onto others whenever you can acquire leverage to do so. It's certainly not remotely altruistic.

      > > experience has shown that if proprietary companies get the opportunity they will abuse it and behave like parasites.

      And yet, LLVM and Webkit have both seen major investment (including code submissions) from large companies like Apple, so it's hardly cut and dried that LGPL/BSD projects are this one way traffic from the kindly programmers in their bedroom to the big nasty corporations. The fundamental tenets of the "why" of the GPL are on very shaky ground if this kind of thing can occur spontaneously, wouldn't you say?

      It invites the thought: maybe there is no "us" and "them" after all. Maybe there's just, like, people, man.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: No!

      "Do the work and then give it away to those companies that are looking for hand-outs like this. They'll say "Thanks very much" and promptly wrap it in proprietary licences so that they can gain the benefits and not the people who did the work."

      I'm not sure I understand your point here. If something is placed in the Public Domain, then it's there forever and anyone can do with it as they will. Just because $BIGCORP takes it and "wraps" it up up in a some licence or other with other software doesn't stop anyone else from using the stuff already in the Public Domain.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    But /why/ ?

    It seems to me that this whole "public domain" argument is more aiming towards making a statement then actually changing something for the benefit of FOSS.

    Because in the whole article there is no argument given, - none what so ever -, how FOSS would actually benefit from all this. All we're getting are several comments on how copyright and such are outdated. For example:

    "This Article argues that this IP-based approach [used by free and open-source licenses], while perhaps helpful in the beginning, is no longer necessary and in fact prevents the movements from reaching their full potential."

    So what exactly is this full potential ?

    Quite frankly I would have expected this to be mentioned in this article as well. If you're going to write about such topics then please come up with something a little more than merely spouting some seemingly random comments.

    SO I dug up the following from the mentioned paper which curious enough is still but a draft and one which really could use some proper formatting and outlining. Its sheer hell to read, possible also why the author of this article only managed to copy a quote from the beginning...

    Alas; the author first compares the public domain ("PD") model against trademarks and copyright. How he feels that those are automatically linked to FOSS is way beyond me: "A PD approach, therefore, would need to effectively override any copy rights, waive any patent rights (both with respect to any patent rights already obtained as well as prospectively), and relinquish any remedies that come with either". (page 35).

    Here you see the first fail IMO. Because the author never seems to think about "the opposition". For example: would Python have been put in the PD then chances were very high that the company which is now allegedly trying to get a patent on the name could actually do so (since its completely free) after which they would fully own Python and all the assets that come with it.

    I guess the author would consider that a huge win for FOSS but I only see a major failure there.

    The author then goes on with arguments such as: "Containing the prospect of Trolls" (how ironic!).

    He argues that a direct benefit of PD would be to limit the likelyhood of "IP Trolls". Well, I beg to differ as can be seen above. Another aspect which the author seems to be totally unaware of is how the whole patenting system actually works.

    As you can see here (link to the official instructions on how to oppose a patent) one of the requirements to oppose a patent is: "In general terms, an opponent must have rights in an earlier trade mark or other form of trade sign.".

    Needless to say but if you put your stuff in the PD sector you don't even have so much as copyright anymore. So instead of preventing "IP trolls" I'd say its much safer to assume that it will actually increase it. There is enough value within FOSS which a lot of companies would like to get their hands on, you can be sure of that.

    Alas; all I see is a lot of 'blah blah' and theoretical approaches without being able to give one substantial argument as to how FOSS would benefit. All I see is people wanting change because of the change, possible hoping they'll be "immortalized" themselves for suggesting it.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: But /why/ ?

      Another area not examined is existing copyrighted works in the public domain, namely books and music.

      Here we can see that there is no incentive (or requirement) for publishers to contribute either to the preservation of original works (ie. contribute to book repositories such as the British Library ) or the production of new works, even though they expect to gain from their use of both existing and soon to be public domain works.

      No the GPL - in it's various forms, isn't perfect but it does provide for some contribution from users back to the source.

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: But /why/ ?

      IOW, the idea behind the FOSS licenses is about applying the copyright laws JUST a little bit, not so much to limit the people's ability to USE the code but rather to protect the code from being hijacked.

      1. Charles Manning

        re: Use of copyright law

        You can't apply a law "just a little bit". You apply it or you do not. Copyright law is what gives GPL its teeth. No copyright law and GPL basically becomes BSD.

        As much as FSF calls itself "free", the GPL is pretty draconian. It allows only one interpretation of "free": the RMS interpretation. This very much limits the use of the code. You have to sign up to RMS's version of free to use GPL

        The hijacking argument is bogus. If Microsoft/Apple use BSD code that does not take it away from anyone else. How can that be construed as "hijacking" is beyond me.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    John Lennon?

    The self proclaimed "working class hero" from a comfortable background, who had the brass neck to sing about a world with no possessions while sat at his Steinway grand piano in his enormous mansion.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: John Lennon?

      John Lennon didn't put his works into the public domain, so whilt he may have sung about having no possessions he was no fool.

  4. Barrie Shepherd

    "........he's almost certainly wrong, humankind being humankind. "

    Do we really need this level of Political Correctness in a technical article? The word MAN (Hu man kind) is still in it so it still presents an insult to those who have issues with (their view) sexist language - mankind has served us well lets keep it going.

    Leave the English language alone lest we all fall down a humanhole in the road.

    End of PC rant.

    1. Richard IV

      Political correctness circa 1937

      Oh, the humanity!

      A quick etymology search reveals that humankind and mankind have been coexisting since the 17th century, along with earthlings. One day, perhaps happily.

  5. P. Lee Silver badge

    PD is not the the next logical step on from FLOSS

    The GPL is specifically designed to protect the receiver of the software and the community that builds the software. It uses IP rights, but reverses the direction of benefit. PD removes all rights. That's not even close to the same thing.

    The GPL protects free in a non-free world. That is its function. If all code were free, there might be a case for discarding it.

    1. Kristian Walsh

      Re: PD is not the the next logical step on from FLOSS

      You're absolutely right. I'm amazed by how many FOSS advocates don't understand this. Without copyright, there's no enforcement of open source licences.

      GPL doesn't "reverse the direction of benefit"; it places the copyright with the project maintainers, or the FSF in some cases. The function of copyright in this transaction is no different to selling your software copyright to a commercial publisher: in both cases, it is IP law that allows the right to control copying and distribution to pass from author to distributor.

      The only difference is that afterwards, a commercial publisher charges for the copies, whereas a FOSS distributor allows copies on condition of adhering to GPL or similar.

      You can't have the GPL without copyright. You can't have copyright if you relinquish it by putting work into the public domain.

      1. Oninoshiko

        Re: it places the copyright with the project maintainers, or the FSF in some cases.

        You could not be more wrong. The GPL does not transfer a copyright. Some groups (such as the FSF) require a copyright assignment, because it gives the group standing. This must be dealt with separately from the GPL.

        Copyright transfers require it to be specified, in writing (if it where ME I'd want it signed and notarized, FSF seems fine with just a signature). This was one of the things that got SCO in trouble. Novell had promised to transfer copyrights, but never actually did, therefore they did not have the right to sue for copyright violations, even if there where any!

        Other groups take the policy that it's too dangerous to have all the copyrights held by one group, and so want a number of copyright holders. This approch has the upside that you don't have to trust the organization.

    2. Oninoshiko

      Re: PD is not the the next logical step on from FLOSS

      The GPL doesn't reverse ANYTHING. If you receive a copy of a piece of code I released under the GPL, under a non-compatible license, what are you going to do about it?

      FUCK ALL. You have no standing to do anything. The only thing you can do about it, is contact me. IF I think it's worth my time, I can pursue legal action. Realistically, it probably isn't. I'm not going to see much from most GPL violations, so it's just a money sink. The only reason to pursue is principle, and I'm not wealthy enough to be principled.

      Your rights aren't protected, the developer's are.

  6. a cynic writes...

    About that CA technologies report...

    I actually followed the link and it doesn't say that the UK & the US come dead last in IT innovation. It actually says the proportion of IT budget spent on innovation is the lowest.

    I'm not sure how moving to public domain software will change that. In fact I would expect it to make the headline figures worse as it would lower the cost of innovation.

  7. LDS Silver badge

    Data are the core of *some* (and a few) company only.

    Too many writers are starting to think that the "software world" is made up only by Google and Facebook. Data - big or not - are at the core of only some companies. There's still a lot of software written to perform complex tasks on little data - the wold of software is not only made of Google or Facebook. Asay shows once more he's unable to look at the BigPicture, he still looks stubbornly at BigData only.

  8. Turtle


    "Clark Asay [...] has published a paper detailing why free and open-source software licences fall short of their goal, and how public domain could help."

    Nowhere in the article is the question of the "goal" of FOSS broached, which might be just as well, because it is a *very* debatable subject.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Public Domain Works If We All Play By The Same Rules

    But we don't play by the same rules.

    Companies like Microsoft and Apple are legal entities fighting legal wars over the very definition of all things. What is "ownership"? Can we bind people to "licences" and never own software (and therefore never re-sell)? Can we prevent others from implementing basic simple ideas? Can we control innovation and design and force legal standards to be followed that result in handsome royalty fees to those who lobbied the government first?

    The world is a dirty place. There are crooks everywhere. Companies are organised gangs who will do ANYTHING to get rich. EH-NE-THING.

    When you're faced with an enemy prepared and willing to use the law to abuse you and your efforts you must use the law to protect yourself. You can't go into a "fair fight" continuing to aim above the belt when your opponent is throwing sand in your eye and aiming for your groin.

  10. Russ Tarbox

    Public Domain software reminds me of Acorn magazine cover disks.

    I'm sure a lot of that software would now be released under a GPL or similar which IIRC weren't really around or widely known about at the time. But I remember a large majority of free software was released as "Public Domain".

  11. Dave Bell

    Should Moral Rights apply?

    According to the IPO, there are also Moral Rights which can be claimed, distinct from the Economic rights. But this doesn't apply to computer software. It's arguable that a part of the function of the GPL is to fill that gap, allowing the economic rights to be given away, without losing the credit to the authors of the software.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "my ability to make money"

    Actually, as someone who believes firmly in the software business, and as a longtime denizen of the open-source world, I think both Asay and Moody have a valid point, one that doesn't eliminate my ability to make money.

    one that doesn't eliminate my ability to make money.

    my ability to make money.

    ... so I guess that is what the article is about.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: "my ability to make money"

      > my ability to make money.

      Not sure what your point is.

      The biggest argument against releasing software into the PD is that as a software house you can't make money that way. I think the likes of Red Hat blow that idea out of the water.

      To be honest, most proprietary software houses make money by the threat of law, that's why we have copyright.

      In reality though, the customer is not paying for your software, they're paying for your expertise. Any company that can't make money because their customers *want* their services, doesn't really deserve to be in business and I think that is Asay's core point.

      1. Oninoshiko

        Re: "my ability to make money"

        Admittedly, I don't follow Red Hat much, but you're going to have to enlighten me as to what software they have released into the Public Domain. Last time I checked, they have not released any software into the public domain.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    From what I understand, some countries don't even acknowledge the concept of "Public Domain", so that could be a problem...

    1. Oninoshiko

      Re: PD

      Japan has certain unrelinquishable moral rights, which are considered to conflict with the western concept of the public domain.

      OTOH, Japan also only recognizes copyrights of Japanese citizens, Japanese corporations, and where required by treaty. Which implies (to me, at least) that if an unemployed foreigner put their work in the public domain, Japan shouldn't recognize a copyright.

      "Article 6. The following shall be granted protection under this Law:

      (i) works of Japanese nationals ("Japanese nationals" includes legal persons established under the Japanese law and those who have their principal offices in this country; the same shall apply hereinafter);

      (ii) works first published in this country, including those first published outside this country and published in this country within thirty days of that first publication;

      (iii) works not falling within those mentioned in the preceding two items, to which Japan has the obligation to grant protection under an international treaty."

  14. RLWatkins

    "transaction costs"?

    Interesting argument that open-source licenses "incur significant transaction costs" when in fact most such licenses state simply that if one uses the code one must (a) attribute it to its original authors and (b) make any improvements one makes to it open-source also. Such licenses cover far and away the majority of what's called "FOSS".

    A little more thorough survey of the FOS codebase and a little more thorough reading of the licenses (There are several variants.) might have been advisable before publishing.

  15. Anonymous Coward

    Asays' lesson for public-domain innovation?

    Please self-destruct ...

  16. evs

    GPL is copyright

    "Most of today's software innovation is happening in FOSS, from mobile to big data, and neither patents nor copyrights have been required to achieve this."

    Ironically, this statement is factually incorrect. Code without copyright (public domain) has no protection at all and is subject to the tragedy of the commons. Even a small change can make it a derivative work and the new owners (those who copyrighted the derivative work) can effectively claim that any subsequent derivatives which include anything resembling their change (such as a critical bug fix) are not derived form the original PD work but from their copyrighted derivative. They may not win in all cases but the chilling effect was certainly killing software innovation in the '80s (I was there. It was getting pretty bad.). This was especially problematic as programmers of the time weren't lawyers and tended to assume that code published without attribution was public domain and couldn't be copyrighted by someone else. You can imagine their surprise when they found themselves facing C&D orders from the largest software houses for code that they themselves had written.

    This was the basic problem that Stallman et al were trying to solve with GPL. They looked at the law and realized that the only way to keep code from being stolen by IP lawyers and industry associations was to be the first to declare copyright on the work. The GPL is sometimes referred to as "copyleft" because it is just copyright applied with specific rules to allow free distribution and modification without actually throwing the IP to the wolves.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: GPL is copyright

      That was what I thought. The GPL and similar licenses are meant to leverage copyright law to protect the code from hijacking. A similar angle sometimes occurs in the patent field. Their version of the FOSS license is the "hands off" patent: obtaining a patent on a process for the primary purposes of allowing free use of the process and not allowing anyone else to assert it.

    2. Jason Ozolins
      Thumb Up

      Re: GPL is copyright

      Absolutely agree that GPL relies upon the legal protection of copyright to achieve its end.

      Was really happy to see that many presenters at 2013 were attributing the images in their slide decks. Haven't been to a conference for ages, so maybe this isn't new, but back in the mid 2000s it was not as common.

      Without copyright, the GPL couldn't work, and without the GPL and similar licenses, there'd be no implicit patent grant on code distributed; a company or individual could inject submarine patent claims into free software, wait for it to turn up in a derived product such as an embedded system, then sue for patent infringement. Beats developing your own products...

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