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Software Development on an OS Base

The development of software on an open source (OS) platform presents some interesting issues from the point of view of a copyright contract. Right at the outset, it is important to note that even if the software has an open source code, that does not automatically necessarily mean that it is governed by a copyleft licence which allows for free use, either from the point of view of payments or the freedom to create derivative works.

Assuming that the "OS base" is in fact governed by a copyleft licence, the parameters within which any negotiations in relation to the software would be conducted could be extremely different from those which would have applied in the absence of copyleft terms. For example, with regard to traditional proprietary software, issues such as employee confidentiality could be of vital importance. However, with regard to software developed using an OS base, such issues could become completely irrelevant, depending on the terms of the copyleft licence. This is because if the OS base were, for example, governed by terms which included a share-alike obligation in relation to derivative works, attempting to force confidentiality obligations on those who created such derivative works would be meaningless, as there would in any case be a legal obligation to make publicly available the source code of the derivative software.

Further, if one were to acquire "derivative software" which had an OS component in it, and then had the derivative software customised, from a copyright perspective, there would be three kinds of software which would come into play:
  1. the OS base software;
  2. the derivative software which was developed using the OS base;
  3. the "customised software" which would be derived from the derivative software, and which would be a form of derivative software in its own right.
Any contract in such a scenario would have to take into account all three kinds of software, and consider not only ownership issues with regard to all of them but also licence terms. This could be complicated because each of the components could be owned by different persons. For example:
  1. the owner of the OS software;
  2. the owner of the derivative software;
  3. the owner of the software used to customise the derivative software; and
  4. the owner of the final product i.e. the customised software.
The customised software could, depending on what the relevant contracts said, be jointly owned by the owners of the OS software, the derivative software and the software used for customisation. Also, although it may appear to be counter-intuitive to require the owner of the customised software to be specifically designated by contract, it is important that this be done for the sake of clarity. If not anything else, it may not be possible to separate components in the customised software, and as such, it is possible that the customised software would not be: "a+b" but "ab", where "a" represented the derivative software, and "b" the customisations. In such a scenario "ab" would be a distinct product, and if ownership were not clearly defined, it could easily lead to a situation where none of the purported owners would easily be able to further deal with the customised software, and where shares of payments accrued through the exploitation of "ab" would be extremely murky.

As far as licence terms were concerned, the grants of rights in relation to each of the various software components could be different. Although it would be necessary for the derivative software and the customised software to comply with the terms of the original OS base software, it would not be necessary for the customisations used to create the ultimate customised software to do so. That being said, the customisations would, in all probability, be hit by the terms governing the the OS base the moment they were used to customise the derivative software. As such, it would be necessary to assess the impact of the OS licence on the customisations prior to use, to ensure the consequences would be acceptable to the owner of the customisations.

At the end of the day, OS software may be intended to be "free" but that does not mean that it is either inert or incapable of affecting any works derived from it. As such, even if an OS base is governed by a copyleft contract, it is vital to check what the terms of that contract are before proceeding with the development of derivative software. All copyleft contracts do not simply say: "Do anything, don't pay!"

(This post is by Nandita Saikia and was first published at Indian Copyright.)