Don’t bother programmers with this legal nonsense

So programmers don’t want to read a lot of legal questions?!

I have been looking into licensing problems lately, in particular regarding the GPL — I guess its copyleft approach is what makes it so confusing. There is a lot of information on the GNU website, enough to get you started. But what I can’t get my head around is how to go about forking a GPL project, especially with the advent of github-like websites where projects and their forks1 can now live happy lives on their own: do you have to rename the project (or is the name itself is covered by the GPL and you change it as you want, as long as you maintain the copyright/licensing notices — but then isn’t the name part of the licensing notice)? Do you add your copyright to the files you modified, or to all of them (heck, just renaming the project is enough to modify all files)? In a word, forking a GPL project is not a trivial thing to do.

As there are bucket loads of open-source projects out there, I thought that all these legal matters had already been tackled by other programmers (presumably chatting with their solicitors), and that asking these questions would quickly and easily find an answer. Nah. Don’t bother programmers with this legal nonsense. Let’s paddle with leaves down an ecstatic line of light, and bring Mono to Ubuntu, and see how big a bang that can do.

It is then interesting to have a look at what other projects have done… And clearly, programmers have no clue when it comes to licensing and copyright issues, and dos and don’ts, which is very worrying for the companies or the open-source project they work for. The first project I looked at, the forked project had altered all the copyright notices from the original files, and as far as I understand the whole thing, this is in breach of the GPL (I could be wrong, mind you, but I haven’t been able to get a proper answer yet).

So the standard answer is “talk to your solicitor.” But how many developers have done so, that we can’t bloody find answers to common legal issues? If they haven’t, how many projects out there are actually… not legit? What are the risks in turn for companies and OSS projects that use or derive work from these projects? I mean, what is to stop them from bringing some (GPL) third party library into the codebase, unbeknownst to the legal team, and then put the whole company into jeopardy? Easily done. Especially if said developers would rather put their head into the sand to avoid seeing this.

IMO, that is extremely worrying, and even more worrying that programmers actually think this is not their problem. And disasters like this don’t really surprise me anymore…

[1] Obviously, not all git forks are forks in the traditional sense, but some are. Some github projects are also “forks” from sourceforge projects. The good thing about the git “fork” approach is that it removes the stigmas associated with forking, which, for some reason, was regarded as a bad thing — and it probably was, given that the most notable ones arose mostly from bitterness.