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Can Employer Usurp Copyright On GPL-Derived Work? 504

Posted by kdawson
from the tangled-web dept.
An anonymous reader writes "I am a recent graduate, and I've been working on my own on a project that uses GPL-licensed libraries. Later a university department hired me, on a part-time basis, to develop this project into a solution that they needed. The project's size increased over time and soliciting help from the open source community seemed like the obvious thing to do. However, when I suggested this, my boss was not interested, and it was made clear to me that the department's position was that copyright of the whole thing belonged to them. Indeed, by default work created for an employer belongs to the employer, so I may have gotten myself in the same trap discussed here years ago. Even though I want to release my code to the public I don't know whether I have the legal right to do so. I did start the project on my own. And, since no written or verbal agreement was ever made to transfer copyright over to my employer, I question whether they can claim that they now own the extended version of the project. Also, the whole project relies on GPL libraries, and without those libraries it would be useless. Can they still claim copyright and prevent me from publishing the source code even though it is derived from GPL software?" Some early commenters on the submission pointed out that it matters whether the libraries were licensed under the LGPL vs. the GPL.
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Can Employer Usurp Copyright On GPL-Derived Work?

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  • All the work you did for them belongs to them. However, they may not be legally entitled to use it how they'd like. If it's based on GPL code and they don't want to release the whole thing under the GPL, they'll need to rewrite the sections under the GPL before they can have their way with it.

    Let's be clear. You have no rights to do whatever you want with the code you wrote for them.

    • I'd also like to note that I work for a large company that knowingly pays me to do exactly this all day. I write proprietary software using GPL libraries and such all day. We just don't distribute it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by MichaelSmith (789609)

        I'd also like to note that I work for a large company that knowingly pays me to do exactly this all day. I write proprietary software using GPL libraries and such all day. We just don't distribute it.

        That could come back to bite them quite badly. What if one department gets spun off as an independent business at some point in the future? Not solving this problem up front could create some hidden costs for your employer.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          An easier problem than they have with BSA. After all, the spun off company won't have the original license and that original license will have the parent company on it not the spin-off. Therefore they'll need a new license for all commercial software.

          This is an additional cost for the company when spinning off a branch.

          NOTE: the GPL is satisfied if BOTH the parent and the spin-off get GPL rights to the code. This doesn't cost anything.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by gnasher719 (869701)

          That could come back to bite them quite badly. What if one department gets spun off as an independent business at some point in the future? Not solving this problem up front could create some hidden costs for your employer.

          One thing to remember if you don't worry about the source code itself, but about obligations that you might enter into by using GPL'd software: By distributing executable + source code _together_ you have done everything that the GPL demands from you. Nobody has any rights towards you at all. So if you spin off another company, give them the executable and the source code.

          If you don't do it that way, then suddenly _anybody_ in the world has the right to request source code from you.

    • by mindstrm (20013) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:37AM (#32166082)

      Before they can have their way with it, yes - but they can use it internally - just as I can make derived works from GPL code and use them however I want, myself or in my company. What I can't do is distribute it, sell it, etc... but if I base my employers in-house time-tracking system on some GPL code - the company is under no usage restriction whatsoever, and is under no obligation to share those changes with anyone else.

      If they do want to distribute the stuff outside their organisation, they'll have to do so under the terms of the GPL - other than that scenario, they can do whatever they want internally.

    • by pwizard2 (920421)
      It seems to me like the best way to avoid this sort of problem is to fork the original project and develop each version in parallel. (basically, keep development separate at all times, no code sharing between the two AT ALL after the fork, etc.) That way, you get to keep control over your version and the employer gets their own customized version with all the necessary proprietary enhancements. Sure, it's double the work, but everybody wins and gets what they want. Since the pre-existing GPL code in the pro
      • Is it possible to do two distinct forks simultaneously, if you're the one doing the coding on both forks? Couldn't your employer argue that your contributions to the personal fork are inevitably derived from the code you wrote for their fork? And if you write your fork first, and then soon thereafter write the employer's fork, isn't the employer's fork inevitably derived from your personal fork, since you wrote both?

        I think a single person simultaneously (or even with weeks) writing both forks is a bad idea, at least from a legal "who owns this code" standpoint.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by BitZtream (692029)

          You can try, then when you go to court, the judge will smack you in the face for trying to sneak around your legal obligations.

          When you write something on your own with clear knowledge of the requirement for your employment, using knowledge you gained FROM your employment, you have a really HARD time trying to convince the court that it really was 'your' work.

          The government and courts have been dealing with people far sneakier than you for several thousand years.

    • All the work you did for them belongs to them.

      You don't know that. You are just guessing. He was "hired" but what does that mean? What does his contract say? Lots of people are hired to work on things which don't belong to their employer. He says "I did start the project on my own. And, since no written or verbal agreement was ever made to transfer copyright over to my employer"; that means that their software is a derivative work of software which is legitimately his copyright. Who owns the development after that point may be more complex. Mos

    • Yes, the the employer has no rights to the code written *before* you were hired. That is copyright to you. All the stuff you wrote while working for them is theirs.
    • All the work you did for them belongs to them. [...] You have no rights to do whatever you want with the code you wrote for them.

      It depends on the jurisdiction, and possibly what kind of employer it is. In particular governmental and some other public employers have restrictions in some countries - e.g., in Finland university teachers and researchers have copyright to what they create in their work. Also, there may be nationally binding agreements with trade unions that have similar effects on some professions.

      As a rule, though, with a private employer, and in some countries with all, you are right.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The contract didn't convey copyrights, therefore the copyrights are still his, NOT his employer.

      Copyrights must be transferred by explicit contract. Not "oh, you paid me, so I guess your demand must be right".

      Since the work contains GPL stuff, the university get a non-transferrable license to the combined work and a transferrable right to distribute/sell to others under the GPL.

      Absent any contract specifying ownership transfers, it's still the author owns copyright.

      NOTE: if the university don't abide by the

  • Talk to a lawyer (Score:2, Insightful)

    by BadAnalogyGuy (945258)

    A lawyer will be able to help you.

    What you need to take away from all this is the same simple advice Homer gave Bart. "Never try"

    All you gain from trying to make this software GPL is a lot of heartache and lost time. In the worst case, you can lose a lot of money to lawyers and ultimately the whole source base and copyright.

    Was it worth it?

    • by siloko (1133863)
      Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] can help too!
      • i dont even want to know how [citation needed] will hold up when this gets to court..

        off course it might hold up perfectly, in which case in weep for the justice system in whichever country the OP is

        • by siloko (1133863)
          Well as a starting point Wikipedia is good enough. You say 'when this gets to court', which is far from likely given the scenario outlined in the summary. I get the impression that the summary poster is just fishing for pointers not recruiting a legal team ;)
  • Lawyer time? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gringer (252588) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:30AM (#32166034)

    Even though I want to release my code to the public I don't know whether I have the legal right to do so.

    That sounds like "you need to talk to a lawyer" material.

    IANAL, but my guess is that if it's in your contract, you'll probably need to demonstrate that you weren't aware of that at the time you signed the contract in order to keep copyright (or control of licensing) on your work. However, given that they hired you to develop a GPL product, it seems silly that any extended code produced is not also GPL licensed.

    • Re:Lawyer time? (Score:5, Informative)

      by QuantumG (50515) * <qg@biodome.org> on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:37AM (#32166088) Homepage Journal

      No. If I hire someone to extend the linux kernel (or something else that is GPL licensed), I own those changes. If I choose to distribute them, I'm required to distribute them under the GPL, but I am not obligated to distribute them and my employees have no right to distribute them. To put it simply: the code aint under the GPL until the copyright owner says it is. The copyright owner can even choose to distribute it under some other more restrictive license.. it would be a copyright violation, and third parties could possibly sue me, but that's my choice. Nothing is "automatically" GPL.

    • by Rophuine (946411)

      IANAL either, but my dad went through this (we're both software developers). (In Australia, at least, and barring contractual agreements to the contrary...) if you're working as a contractor, you own the code you write, but your client is entitled to exploit it for the purposes envisaged by the contract or agreement. If you're employed as ... well, an employee (which I assume is the case here), they own everything you write in the capacity in which they're paying you. You have no control, they own the copyr

  • HAD you done this on your OWN TIME using your OWN RESOURCES then this isn't part of the "temporary employment" you were in.

    Sadly, you didn't. While you included open-source projects to be successful faster... the end result has a copyright owned by your employer.
    THEY CANNOT use this without properly administering the rights of the open-source projects they use. These are license-dependent... and I'm guessing by your email that some? or all? are GPL.

    It's a thorny issue, but there is an EASY ANSWER and a HAR

    • If you were hired to create an internal project that is going to be used for internal purposes and not distributed to third parties in any way, then the university can keep the code they paid you do develop as an employee without ever having to release the source code.

  • You say that you started the project before you went to work to the employer, it was GPL at that point. He cannot change the license for the code that existed at that point. Due to the nature of the GPL: new code that is added will also have to be GPL, ergo the whole thing is GPL.

    What does your contract of employment say ? Does it say anything about copyright ? Did you read it before you signed ?

    Do you want to continue to work for someone who attempts to steal your property ?

    • by QuantumG (50515) * <qg@biodome.org> on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:44AM (#32166150) Homepage Journal

      He doesn't need to change the license.

      1. Alice starts a GPL project.
      2. Bob hires Alice to write an extension to the GPL project.
      3. During her employ (or before, it doesn't matter) Alice uses some GPL libraries written by Claire.
      4. Alice leaves Bob's employ.

      FACT 1: Bob owns all the changes Alice made while in his employ.
      FACT 2: Alice had no right to distribute changes owned by Bob.
      FACT 3: Bob is not obligated to distribute the changes.
      FACT 4: As the GPL only relates to distribution, not use, Bob is free to use the software.
      FACT 5: If Bob later distributes the changes without placing those changes under the GPL, both Alice and Claire can sue him.

      Nothing "automatically" becomes GPL software.

      • No, Alice owns nothing in your scenario, and has no standing to sue. Claire's copyright was violated if Bob distributes it outside GPL terms, so she can sue.
        • by QuantumG (50515) *

          Alice owned the copyright on the work before Bob hired her.

          Linus Torvalds started the Linux kernel project.. he later went to work for Transmeta.. Transmeta didn't suddenly become the owner of the Linux kernel. I don't know if I can dumb this down for you any more.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Kjella (173770)

          No, Alice owns nothing in your scenario, and has no standing to sue.

          True, but the Alice/Bob/Claire situation doesn't match the summary:

          "I am a recent graduate, and I've been working on my own on a project that uses GPL-licensed libraries. Later a university department hired me, (...)

          Unless the hiring agreement contained an explicit copyright assignment, anything he contributed before he got hired will give him standing to sue if they violate the GPL.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by dudpixel (1429789)

      This isn't stealing. Almost all programming jobs will contain a clause saying your employer owns any code you write while you are at work there. It sucks sometimes but it is sort of fair depending on how you look at it. The whole notion of working for an employer revolves around you giving up something in exchange for money. In this case it is your freedom and your intellect/creativity/etc.

      The issue here is that if your employer does not wish to make your changes public (and comply with the GPL) then th

      • by 517714 (762276)
        Copied/Distributed? If we use the RIAA's and Business Software Alliance's theories on that one and conclude that you can't run or compile the software without doing these, we must then conclude that the GPL is always applicable to any changes in the software.
        • by dudpixel (1429789)

          yeah I thought of the ramifications of the terminology as I was typing it.

          I'm not a lawyer, but this may be a "grey area" of the GPL.

          I do not believe that compiling or running the software would be in any way violating the spirit of the GPL however.

          Provided you use the GPL as it was intended, you should be pretty safe I'd imagine.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by QuantumG (50515) *

            It's not a gray area as the GPL explicitly says that it does not cover use, only distribution.

  • Ask a lawyer (Score:5, Informative)

    by QuantumG (50515) * <qg@biodome.org> on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:32AM (#32166056) Homepage Journal

    Gah. Every time this kind of story gets posted to Slashdot we go through the same conversations.

    You entered into the employment and provided them with the code base, they most likely have a claim to it.

    All the work you did for them is work-for-hire, they own it.

    There's nothing wrong with using GPL libraries for internal proprietary software.. the GPL is a *distribution* license, you haven't said anything about distribution so I'm assuming they're not distributing it, in which case the GPL is irrelevant.

    There's lots and lots of source code in the world, plenty of it is free for you to hack on, move on.

    • Is it fair to say that the project has been forked? One branch would be the one developed at the university. The other would be the last snapshot before his employment started, plus any changes made independently (perhaps by other people - I can see that stuff done by him in is own time might be a grey area).

    • It's not as clear as that.

      He developed the project on his own, _then_ got hired to improve it. Likely he messed up and therefor it's legally confusing. Had he made clear at the start that what he was providing was the service of improving his _own_ project and that those changes belonged to him, then there would be no problems.

      This all depends on what was said when he was hired; did the university say they wanted to pay him to improve the project, or did they say they wanted to hire him so he would write co

  • by Bananenrepublik (49759) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:32AM (#32166058)

    If your project is only used internally, i.e. if it's not distributed, the GPLedness of the libraries you're using plays no role. If you're not distributing, the GPL places no restrictions whatsoever on what you do with the libraries. Now, since you started the project before getting paid to do so, it might be the case that the step where you so to say 'gave' it to the university counts as distribution, and then there would be no alternative to an at-least-GPL-Free license for your project, but that is something you should ask a lawyer about, not slashdot.

  • You could have just transferred the generic part of the code back home.
    No one would have given a damn.
    You could even truly claim, you worked on the stuff on your free time.
    Somethings it is better for both parties to not talk about the issues.

  • 1. The code you wrote is probably your employer's.
    2. The rest (the GPL code you used) is not.

    This means that to distribute the code you wrote they would need to abide by the terms of the GPL or rewrite all of the GPL parts. I've heard solid arguments in both directions as to whether internal corporate use counts as distribution, but when talking internal only it may be a moot point if none of the other users care to request the source.

    If binaries are being distributed outside your organization without the

  • Short term career (Score:3, Insightful)

    by LostMyBeaver (1226054) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:37AM (#32166092)
    Well, I'd say that there are multiple issues at hand. First of all, I'm pretty sure you can release the original code that was around before you started the job without any issues. If you were to release the additions and modifications you made after the employment started, that code is rightfully theirs. After all, they hired you to work on the project for them, they didn't contract you to make changes to your open source project.

    Location is an issue that might come up with the GPL. Different countries would interpret the GPL differently. Just because it's been tested (more or less) in the states doesn't mean that it's been tested elsewhere. Given the time of your posting, I'm assuming you're somewhere outside of the U.S. and therefore the requirements of the GPL aren't necessarily clear.

    I had a similar project at one point. I would never use the GPL as I believe in free software, so I use a modified BSD license. But when my employer decided they didn't want to continue making my code open, I wrote it over (it was only 15,000 lines, so it took a few weekends) and BSD'd it. It's still not as complete as the original, but it's functional enough to be useful to others now.

    I recommend that you keep in mind that you work for your employer and if you feel your employer has violated your trust, you're welcome to leave. Additionally, if you violate their trust, they're welcome to release you from your agreement.

    While it may be legally OK to release the code as GPL, it doesn't mean that your employer will agree with your decision and may decide that they'd prefer to work with someone who's more attuned to their wants and needs.
  • Is your company distributing the binaries? If not, then they have no obligation to release the code. The GPL allows for modification and use within a company. It also never says that you must release your code freely on the internet, only that you must provide the source code to people who receive the binaries (if they ask for it). Once again, if your company isn't releasing binaries, they have no obligation.
  • Yes, they absolutely own the copyright if the terms of your employment make the software you write on the job a work for hire (almost certainly the case unless you have an explicit exception in your employment contract).

    They also cannot legally violate the GPL, but they will not even if they keep the source unpublished as long as they provide the source code with any binary distribution to another party.

    The key here is that the GPL does not force you to distribute the source unless you distribute the binari

  • They own the parts you wrote as an employee of theirs. They don't own the parts you wrote before being an employee of theirs - though have fun proving which parts are which...

    No you can't publish the source code that they own or release it under the GPL. If they distribute it then they will need to in order to comply with the license of those libraries and of the portion you wrote before being their employee (though I can see an argument that since you used that code in your work for them you gave them a li

  • I have no clue about the legal matter. However, if you're going to use your own code for employment, perhaps you should have taken a snapshot of it, and forked it?

    Basically, whatever progress you did from the beginning belongs to the company while being paid on the clock. Your original code prior to employment belongs to you. But I seriously doubt you can go back and implement their code or process back into your original pre-fork code.

  • Can you prove that you started the project as a GPL project?

    Even if you do, can you prove your employer knew it was a GPL project and would continue to be so?

    Otherwise, you've created an unlicensable project. However, unless they distribute it (out side of their organization) they can keep using it as-is.

  • Say you work for a big company like Google or Goldman Sachs, and their magic secret program uses libraries and other code distributed under the GNU GPL license.

    They are under no obligation to publish as they use the code internally and do not distribute anything.

    What if an employee leaves the company and takes the code to the magic secret program with him? It uses GNU GPL licensed code, which grants _him_ a license to redistribute it, because he has a copy of the program already.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Drgnkght (449916)

      Just a guess, but I'd say their lawyers would nail said employee to the proverbial wall. Theft of trade secrets comes immediately to mind. Bear in mind that, as a company employee, the fact that he has a copy of the code/binary in his possession does not count as distribution. As I understand it, this is because he would be considered as part of the corporate "person" while under the employment of the said corporation. If he leaves the company with the code in his possession it would almost certainly be con

  • Are you an employee or a contractor? As an employee, the onus to fall on the right side of the GPL probably falls on your employer. But as a contractor, you yourself might be legally responsible for proper adherence to legal rules around the GPL. They are, after all, hiring you to know this stuff.

    As for ownership of the code you created before you were hired: ask HR for a copy of your contract. There is probably a clause in there granting them specific rights, but they might not cover everything. They

  • IANAL and this is not legal advice. If you really care about this, you should pay for advice from someone who is a lawyer.

    That having been said...

    Any software you produced for them for which you directly received W-2 wages belongs to them regardless of the terms of the GPL. It is entirely their choice whether or not to release it under the GPL. They may or may not be violating the GPL if they do not, however any damages from that violation will be monetary; they will not compel the software be released unde

  • IANAL (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jschottm (317343) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:57AM (#32166214)

    IANAL. If you care about this, get one.

    Is the project really worth the trouble? Both you and the department failed to take the proper steps when you were hired. If you push the issue, they may fire you. You'd likely be blackballed from ever working for the university again. If the matter goes to court, you might scare off future employers down the line. Companies get very scared at the idea of someone introducing GPL poisoned (their frame of mind, not mine) code into their products without disclosing it.

    Unless this is some amazingly cool and important project, it might be worth just taking it as a lesson learned. Don't ever use code that requires a license in your employers' software without documentation (and for something like this, keep an extra copy at home), especially if it's something you wrote. Cover Your Ass (CYA).

    Down the line after you leave the university's employment you might go back to your code prior to be hired and release that but it still might be pushing it. You might be legally right but that doesn't mean that you can afford a Pyrrhic victory.

    Did you begin the project as a student (prior to being paid), particularly in any way related to a class? If so, some universities attempt to apply IP ownership to students' work.

    From my understanding of the GPL, you were fine creating software that relied on GPLed libraries and not GPLing it, provided you didn't release it. The place where it kicks in is when you distribute (say, to the university). At that point, you were obligated to put your code under the GPL. Did you do so and if so, was it formal?

    Assuming that there's no student clause, you own the copyright on everything you wrote prior to them hiring you. They most likely own everything after that. For you to have legally distributed the initial code to them, it would have to have been GPLed. If it wasn't formally GPLed, they could try to put you on the hook for using unlicensed software in what you wrote for them.

    They could GPL their portion of it and everything would be solved. Or they could eliminate all of the original code and still use the GPL library and be legal so long as they don't distribute it.

  • NAL, but here is my interpretation

    1) The work you did prior to being employed by them belongs to you. Unless you agreed to assign those copyrights beforehand they have no rights to that code. In practice proving what was yours before hand might be difficult.
    2) The work you did for them is a derivative work. While they have rights to the new code (depends on the specific laws but generally that is the case), they have no right to your original code so it might well be useless without the original code.
    3)

  • by hackerjoe (159094) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @03:15AM (#32166320)

    This is a question that can only really be answered by a lawyer familiar with your circumstances and the laws in your jurisdiction. For example, by default, in Canada, if you're hired as a contractor to produce a work, you retain the copyright on that work (or so I was taught in my 100-level Business Law class). However, I don't believe this is true in the US. It's also not true in either country if you're hired as a salaried employee.

    But really, plenty of other people will be offering legal advice, and the reality is that this matter won't go to court because it's not worth the time or money for you or the university. You can get a lawyer's opinion that you're in the clear to release your work, but even that's only so helpful to you -- if you threaten or bully your employer, that may just set them against you. (On the other hand, it may be just the thing! Maybe they need to see that you won't be pushed around. Different people respond to different tactics.)

    The most elegant solution to your problem is politics. Convince your boss's boss and your boss's respected colleagues that your work would be better off shared -- people's opinions are ultimately derived from the opinions of the people they respect. You've made good use of an open-source base, right? Make sure they understand that there's value in tapping into that community. Allay their fears. Show them the positive side. Get people on your side.

    If you can swing this right, it won't matter what the legalities are because the one of the university's officers will sign a waiver disclaiming interest in the code and you'll be in the clear for sure -- and your boss will be pleased at having done something good.

    Sure, you should have got the signature before you started working; then you wouldn't have to spend cycles on this problem. Still, it may be fixable.

    And if that doesn't work, just remember: the implementation is twice as good and ten times as quick to write when you've done it once before!

  • It doesn't matter what they want - you're in a much stronger position than them.
    The copyright on the original, developed before you were employed by them, very probably belongs to you. The final project is a derived work of this original. Distribution of a derived work requires the consent of the copyright holder of both the original and derived work - you can prevent them from distributing the project at all (even internally) by refusing to grant a license of the original work. Simply 'remind' them that
    • I'd say most people interpret the GPL's distribution requirements as only applying once the project has been distributed externally.

  • Leave the university and do a "code rewrite", as long as they can't prove you copy and pasted the work that you did under their employment, they have little legal standing and unless this is a real programming gem I doubt they will send the lawyers after you... just look at what happenned to SCO.

  • Even if they do violate the GPL and distribute the program, you do not have any right to release the code against your employer's wishes (only a judge has the ability to force the release of code). If you do so, you will be sued or possibly charged under trade secret laws.

    Everything you've coded is your employer's property and although the GPL may supersede their ownership rights, there is still a hierarchy of rights of which you are not a part of.
  • by cas2000 (148703) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @03:51AM (#32166500)

    consult a lawyer, but IMO the key thing you said is:

    "I did start the project on my own. And, since no written or verbal agreement was ever made to transfer copyright over to my employer, I question whether they can claim that they now own the extended version of the project."

    it was yours to start with. they paid you to do some extra work on it. there was no transfer of license.

    they may "own" any of the work-for-hire stuff you did while employed by them (depends on the nature of the employment - usually, in simple terms, if you're a contractor, you own your work but if you're an employee, they do) BUT THEY DO NOT OWN THE COPYRIGHT, AND THEY DO NOT OWN YOUR PRIOR WORK.

    BTW verbal agreements are worth the paper they're written on - doesn't matter what they claim you said, if they can't produce a signed transfer agreement, it means nothing. same as if an employer verbally agrees that you will get paid quadruple for working overtime, unless that's standard practice where you work it's unenforcable unless it's in writing. and same as if the salesman says you can opt out of the contract at any time for any reason without penalty - if it's not what the contract says, it means nothing.

    never trust a verbal agreement. they're worthless. this is true anywhere, not just in employment.

    BTW, crap like this is why i *NEVER* sign an employment agreement without carefully looking at the clauses to do with ownership of work. if it says anything other than "what i do during work time on work equipment is yours, what i do on my time on my own equipment is mine" i send it back for another edit. i've had one or two bosses quibble about that until I ask them if they want to start paying me for 24 hours a day rather than 7.25.

    (that question was always a good answer to the occasional managerial whinges about long hair and beard too)

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @06:23AM (#32167074)

      never trust a verbal agreement. they're worthless. this is true anywhere, not just in employment.

      Unless you're getting married, which - at least in Australia if not other jurisdictions - is legally defined as a verbal agreement.

  • teach them a lesson (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Aurisor (932566) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @07:21AM (#32167356) Homepage

    So, as I understand it, there are 3 pieces of software here. First are the GPL libraries; let's call them 'A'. Then, you have the software you did as a hobbyist, let's call that 'B'. Finally, you have the work for hire, called 'C'. C depends on B, and B depends on A.

    It's clear that they own C, and there's nothing you can do about that. On the other hand, you own B. If you publicly distributed B under the GPL, you are probably screwed here. In that case, there's nothing to distinguish B from A, and your only recourse might be some technicality in the GPL. For example, if you used the GPL v3, you may be able to use the stuff about software patents to prevent your university from using it.

    However, if by releasing B under the GPL you mean you just used GPL software and considered it free, you may be able to turn around and teach them a lesson here: assert ownership over B, and demand that they produce written proof otherwise. You could demand that C be open-sourced in return for being allowed to use B.

    That being said, though, you were stupid to do closed-source work on your own open-source project. Not only will you have to fight for access to your own work, your knowledge of the closed-source work will probably 'taint' any contributions to the open-source one to such a degree that they could probably claim work you do on it, even if it's off their payroll.

    In the future, don't be so trusting of your employer. When I do open-source work for hire, I create a private github account and make the repo publicly available and GPL-licensed from day one. All of my work on the clock is then contributing to an externally owned and operated repo.

    Oh, and I get the corporate overlord's approval of open-sourcing the thing in writing.

    • by Stumbles (602007) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @08:07AM (#32167578)
      You are absolutely wrong about A and B. You need to go read the GPL terms. If someone uses or releases code under GPL and his company chooses to use his GPLed code, then that company has to make the source available under the same terms they got the code, ie GPL. The only exception I am aware of is this; if you use GPLed code and as long as you DO NOT DISTRIBUTE it, then you are not obligated to make the source code available.
  • IANABM (Score:5, Informative)

    by Kidbro (80868) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @09:26AM (#32168196)

    I am not a bookmark manager, but what the hell [gnu.org]. Those folks actually spent a bit of time thinking about this shit, you know. If you're still confused after reading the FAQ, direct your question to GNU or FSF, not bloody slashdot.

  • by cervo (626632) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @10:15AM (#32168842) Journal
    Level 1) If I read the summary correctly, you wrote some code before you came to your employer. If you GPLed that code, then the code written prior to your employ is yours to do with as you want. Unless you somehow signed something to give rights over to your employer.

    Level 2) Any changes you created to the project while under the employ of your employer. These belong to him/her/it. You cannot distribute them without permission. If your employer does distribute the code, because of the GPLed libraries and stuff, the employer must provide source code. But if your employer does not distribute the code, then he/she/it is free to keep it a secret and not release it. These are the rights under the GPL, it mostly protects the rights of an entity that the software is distributed to. But without distribution it doesn't apply.

    I'm definitely not a lawyer. But it seems to me your best options are the following:
    1) negotiate to buy a license to the software. If you get your employee to distribute it to you somehow, then you can demand the source and you are free to do what you want with it (via the terms of the GPL the employer cannot revoke your right to modify the code if you have the program distributed to you).
    2) if your employer ever creates a commercial product from your code, buy it and then demand the source code and you are free to do what you want. If your employer ever makes a commercial product cheaply, buy a copy and then demand the source code, under the terms of the GPL

Some programming languages manage to absorb change, but withstand progress. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982

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