Source code licencing == term paper policy
Something Luis Villa posted today reminded me of an experience I had recently with a group of students. I am reminded of a phrase that I heard while discussing software licensing. “If we change 60% of the code, it’s ours.”
I am about to graduate with a BS in Computer Science from CSU Sacramento, which means that I’m currently working on my senior project.
My department’s senior project course is a little different at other schools I suspect, since it is a group project with 3 to 6 members per team, and spans two semesters. Also, rather than just coming up with a proposal for an interesting problem to solve, students compete to get a fake contract with one of several local businesses and government agencies. It’s good I guess, but I’d rather be hacking on GNOME or some other free software than write yet-another-boring-crm for tracking form submissions :-). It usually feels more like an exercise in paper pushing than designing software anyway, since the projects are quite simple and boring.
Anyway, me and a fellow teammate were discussing plans for a rather complicated custom widget we needed to create for this project. He found an example that some Joe Schmo had posted on the Internet without any license information, and wanted to just start with that and modify it where necessary.
My first thought was to ask if he knew anything about the license that the code was released under. His first reaction was to stare blankly at me, which I can understand, but this next part shocked me. I said, “Well, if he didn’t explicitly grant any rights to use and redistribute this code, the safe thing to ask him to release it under MIT X11, GPL, or any other license compatible with our codebase.”
He responded, “Why do we need to do that. If we change more than 60% of it then the code is ours.”
My jaw hit the floor. I didn’t even know how to respond to this. After a discussion about U.S. Copyright law, licensing, Copyleft and the four freedoms, etc., we had things straightened out. But I was still troubled.
I think that he may have been confusing one of his instructor’s plagiarism policies with copyright law. I find this especially disturbing because as a computer science student, he is required to take a course that explicitly covers Copyright, Patent and Trademark law. What is even more disappointing is that he is not alone. From my experience, many, many students in this department make the same mistake.
Maybe a question involving this topic would be a good weed-out question when hiring developers who will be working on free software? I would love to see the responses.