Re: [Rd] Copyright versus Licenses

From: Simon Urbanek <simon.urbanek_at_r-project.org>
Date: Tue, 19 Jan 2010 11:54:27 -0500

On Jan 18, 2010, at 23:06 , Bryan McLellan wrote:

> My company recently started using a R library

I suspect you meant R package as R libraries have no DESCRIPTION ...

> from RCRAN that is licensed under the LGPL Version 2 or greater per
> the DESCRIPTION file, but contains no copy of the LGPL notice, or
> any copyright notice. I've grown accustomed to paying attention to
> copyright and licensing as a Debian package maintainer, and sent the
> author of the package an email expressing my concern. The author
> believed that assigning themselves copyright was incompatible with
> licensing the library under the terms of the LGPL. I disagree, and
> further contend that without copyright notice, the [copyright]
> license loses a certain degree of applicability, as it becomes
> inconclusive as to who is licensing the software under the terms of
> the LGPL. Not knowing who I was, the library author asked me to
> start a discussion of the subject on this list, presumably so they
> could see the opinions of others that they trust.
>

[Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer and this is not a legal advice. I'm not representing anyone but myself.]

Copyright is the right that the author of an original work holds automatically (unless someone else can claim to own his work - e.g. his employer etc.) under the Berne Convention. The copyright gives only the author all rights - including but not limited to the right to copy, modify, distribute the work etc. Licenses are used to give some of those rights to other people under certain conditions. Hence you cannot "assign yourself copyright" because you already have it (and if you don't then your cannot assign it). Also you don't need to give the "copyright" to anyone else - you can give certain rights to others using licenses -- such as GPL, LGPL, EUPL etc. -- but you don't give copyright by those since you have far more rights as the author (e.g., you can do whatever your want with the original work beyond the restrictions of the license). There are cases where you may want to give your copyright to someone, e.g., an organization that represents all authors of a project which makes it easier to change licenses etc., but that is a different story.

> The LGPL itself [1], in the final section entitled "How to Apply
> These Terms to Your New Libraries", the license provides a template
> for adding to the top of each source code file that contains a
> copyright line, a general notice regarding the lack of warranty, and
> information on where to obtain a full copy of the license. The GPL
> HOWTO [2] expresses similar instructions for the inclusion of a
> copyright line with the license. I know that R distributes copies of
> common licenses under 'share/licenses' in the R source. Debian does
> as well in '/usr/share/common-licenses/' for the purpose of not
> having to include the full LICENSE and/or COPYING file with every
> package that uses a common open source license, allowing the use of
> verbage such as "The Debian packaging is 2010 [author] and is
> licensed under the Apache License version 2.0. On debian and derived
> systems, see `/usr/share/common-licenses/Apache-2.0' for the
> complete text." The R manual for writing extensions suggests a
> similar approach to avoiding duplication in Section 1.1 [3].
>
> The R manual for writing extensions also mentions [4] in Section
> 1.1.1 the optional use of a Copyright field in the DESCRIPTION file,
> separate from the License field. As this section implies that the
> DESCRIPTION file format is based on the debian control file format,
> I assume the goal is to keep these lines simple, generally under 80
> characters do to average terminal width. As such, I don't assume
> this field is recommended for complete copyright information for a
> library with multiple contributors. The aforementioned article does
> not specify where a developer should alternately put copyright
> information, perhaps assuming one would add it to each source code
> file as is recommended by GNU.
>

I think that is a good practice since it makes it easy to find the copyright holder in case of licensing questions.

However, I suspect that the Author field in the DESCRIPTION could be interpreted as the copyright holder unless anything else is specified (if the author doesn't have copyright s/he would have to specify the Copyright: field). Sometimes single-author packages just state the author and license assuming that it is clear enough. For large projects with many copyright holders you really want to mark the individual files. In either case, marking individual files is clearer as they may be available separately. I don't think there is a strict rule - if tested by the law I suspect that the intent is the most important factor.

This is just my $0.02 -- it would be a really great if authors understood exactly what is a copyright and what is a license. Unfortunately there is a lot of confusion as people read about certain details (e.g. from GNU FAQ) without understanding the underlying mechanisms and the implications.

Cheers,
Simon

> In closing, do the R developers believe that including a Copyright
> notice is imperative with a Copyright License?
>
> If so, what advice do they have for those writing and contributing
> open source R libraries as to where this notice should go?
>
> Should that information perhaps be added to the R manual for
> extensions?
>
> Bryan McLellan
>
> [1] http://www.gnu.org/licenses/lgpl-2.1.txt
> [2] http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-howto.html
> [3] http://cran.r-project.org/doc/manuals/R-exts.html#Package-
> structure
> [4] http://cran.r-project.org/doc/manuals/R-exts.html#The-DESCRIPTION-file
>
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>
>



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