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Can Employer Usurp Copyright On GPL-Derived Work?

kdawson posted more than 3 years ago | from the tangled-web dept.

GNU is Not Unix 504

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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504 comments

GPL Violation? (0)

Z00L00K (682162) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166010)

The employer may be committing a GPL violation. You should bring that up with your employer and also inform them that it can cause a lot of badwill.

Re:GPL Violation? (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166016)

no GPL violation if they do not distribute. what are your grounds for suggesting this is a GPL violation ?

Re:GPL Violation? (5, Informative)

buchner.johannes (1139593) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166188)

This is what it boils down to, and what people often forget or misunderstand about GPL. You can do with GPL code whatever you want internally as long as you don't distribute it. It is a license that specifies how the party someone distributes to has to distribute it when he/she does.

The code OP wrote on his own is on his copyright and he can distribute under the GPL. The extensions he wrote for his employer are owned by the employer (he has the copyright). If he wants to distribute it, the employer has to respect the GPL.

They can claim copyright because they own what you produced at the time you were employed there (usually, may depend on the contract).

Since you are at a university it might be smart to see if there are any regulations or memos that recommend or require that department-developed software becomes open source. I know that some countries, particularly in the EU, see that tax-payed software should become publicly available. Try make some suggestions in this direction.

Re:GPL Violation? (1)

HeronBlademaster (1079477) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166194)

Honest question: does distribution internal to an organization count as distribution as described by the GPL? That is, if I have code subject to the GPL, and I distribute it to my employees without allowing them access to the source code, am I violating the GPL?

This question may be easily answered by another read-through of the GPL, but I'm too tired to do that myself right now...

Re:GPL Violation? (2, Interesting)

rtfa-troll (1340807) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166236)

Honest question: does distribution internal to an organization count as distribution as described by the GPL? That is, if I have code subject to the GPL, and I distribute it to my employees without allowing them access to the source code, am I violating the GPL?

This question may be easily answered by another read-through of the GPL, but I'm too tired to do that myself right now...

First / correct answer: ask your lawyer. This is a question for lawyers

second, more general useful and helpful but speculative answer. You probably don't mean "distribute it to my employees" you mean "install it on my computers which my employees use". In which case it's not a violation of the GPL. This is because it doesn't count as distribution because it is on your own computer and so you (the company) still really posses it. Full details of this may well vary from one state/country to another.

Re:GPL Violation? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166398)

If it is at a university, the computers are probably owned by individuals. It is typical that you are expected to use your own computer not paid for by the university to do work so that claim goes straight down the toilet.

Re:GPL Violation? (1)

Statecraftsman (718862) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166242)

The GPL uses the terms convey and propagate rather than distribute. Propogation is what you're referring to and the way I read it with my non-lawyer eye is... if an organization holds copyright to their changes or is using a publicly available version of the program(and therefore source is available from other channels) they are not in violation of the GPL.

My question to you is how are you able to possess code subject to the GPL yet deny your employees access to the source code? Why would you?

Re:GPL Violation? (1)

HeronBlademaster (1079477) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166290)

I dunno, it was just a theoretical question. I might be too tired to think about anything legal...

I suppose the issue might come up if you have code written by a parent company, who then gives the compiled program to a subsidiary, without also giving them the source code... but I'm just making stuff up as I go.

Re:GPL Violation? (1)

TwilightXaos (860408) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166340)

My question to you is how are you able to possess code subject to the GPL yet deny your employees access to the source code?

This is just a thought, and IANAL so I could be completely wrong here.

What if the organization, eg CorpInc, took software released under the GPL and made modifications to it. Then they installed the modified versions to their own computers. The modified version is clearly under the GPL, because it is a derivative work. However is CorpInc required to give it's employees that use those computers the source to the modified version? If they are, then by the terms of the GPL the employees can give the source, and binaries, to others.

Re:GPL Violation? (1)

GNious (953874) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166312)

..or if they distribute to students? That seems a likely scenario, and would invoke GPL requirements for providing source at requests

Re:GPL Violation? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166374)

That's mostly irrelevant. We can safely assume that his employer got the source code from him, so there is no GPL violation even if it applies.

The trouble he got himself into is this: He (probably) still owns his own work prior to the employment. His employer likely owns the copyright to the work he did during his employment (depends on the contract). If he can't convince his employer to open-source the project, then his only option for continuing is to backtrack to the state the project was in before he started working for them. But then he'll have a hard time making any improvements from there, because he knows the source he wrote for the employer. He will knowingly or unknowingly create a derivative work.

If you want to continue working on a project after employment which involves writing code for the same project, then you should write that into the contract: Either the code is open-sourced or you get to keep the copyright and license it non-exclusively to the employer. If you can get neither, then the project is no longer yours.

Re:GPL Violation? (2, Informative)

Zibri (1063838) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166396)

This should answer your question: http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#GPLRequireSourcePostedPublic [gnu.org]

"The GPL does not require you to release your modified version, or any part of it. You are free to make modifications and use them privately, without ever releasing them. This applies to organizations (including companies), too; an organization can make a modified version and use it internally without ever releasing it outside the organization."

Re:GPL Violation? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166234)

From TFQ: ... 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 ...

The employer seems to be sitting on the code, and the whole question about how to distribute it. So if they are using GPL parts (not just LGPL libs), they seem to be in violation.

Re:GPL Violation? (2, Interesting)

Edward Teach (11577) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166186)

If my understanding is correct (not guaranteed by any means), they would only be in violation if they released the binaries. Any work done before he worked for them is his copyright and he could release that but any work done after his hire is theirs and as long as they keep it in house, there is no violation.

Re:GPL Violation? (3, Informative)

rtfa-troll (1340807) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166276)

Any work done before he worked for them is his copyright and he could release that but any work done after his hire is theirs and as long as they keep it in house, there is no violation.

This varies very much from country to country. In many European countries the work you do outside work is your own. In the US that should also be true, but your employer is allowed to create contracts which take away everything you should own. So, the summary doesn't give us enough information. You need to know a) where exactly this is happening b) what contracts were in place c) what exactly the guy did; what discussions he had and exactly what comments are in the code. Generally he shouldn't post that information since his posting would be discoverable in any lawsuit. He should discuss everything with his lawyer since, in civilised countries, that kind of discussion protects any speculative things he may say that might be harmful to him from being available to his opponents.

Yes, but it may not mean what you think it means (5, Informative)

XaXXon (202882) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166020)

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.

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (3, Informative)

XaXXon (202882) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166042)

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:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (2, Insightful)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166272)

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.

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166344)

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.

why would this be an issue? I believe the GPL only obligates the distributor to provide source code to the distributee, not the rest of the world. Assuming said spinoff gets to retain access to the source code and modify the product however they want internally, then there is still no violation.

An easier problem than they have with BSA (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166368)

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:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166370)

That could come back to bite them quite badly.

FUD.

It'll get sorted out like any other license problem, commercial or non-commercial. It's no big deal.

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (5, Informative)

mindstrm (20013) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (1)

pwizard2 (920421) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166096)

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 proprietary version is also in the original version, (assuming you release it at some point) it probably wouldn't be a GPL violation, but I could be wrong.

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (5, Interesting)

HeronBlademaster (1079477) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166260)

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:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166190)

I thought the GPL only applied if you wanted to distribute your code, if you keep it in house (which your employer wanted to do?) Then it doesn't matter, but if the sold it to another party they would have to release the source code...

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (0)

timmarhy (659436) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166244)

your almost right, and this is also the reason no one outside of OSS wants to touch GPL.

the work you do for an employer belongs to them, they do not however have the legal right to override a pre existing contract such as the GPL.

so the GPL'd libraries you reference do not bleong to them, and if your project won't work without them it's tough tittes. They can still freely use these libraries but they must provide all the source of the project to anyone they distribute the project to, inluding your works (that's the copy left part).

this is what makes the GPL a horrid mess to work with in a commercial environment, and why i only touch bsd libraries.

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (1)

rtfa-troll (1340807) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166306)

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. Most likely them. Depending on where he is he should probably resign now and send a cease and desist notice asking them to immediately destroy all unlicensed copies of his software. It's probably a complex decision which will depend exactly on what who said to who when, but on the information in the summary you can't make that decision.

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (1)

SplashMyBandit (1543257) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166310)

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.

Re:Yes, but it may not mean what you think it mean (1)

tapanitarvainen (1155821) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166318)

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.

The contract didn't convey copyrights (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166348)

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 GPL they are in license violation even if the contract DID convey copyrights unless they have the GPL part taken out.

This is no different tan any other copyright license.

Talk to a lawyer (2, Insightful)

BadAnalogyGuy (945258) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166024)

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?

Re:Talk to a lawyer (1)

siloko (1133863) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166080)

Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] can help too!

Re:Talk to a lawyer (1)

Vectormatic (1759674) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166386)

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

Re:Talk to a lawyer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166308)

A NORMAL human can read and understand the GPL. It just depends on the time they want to spend.

Re:Talk to a lawyer (1)

BadAnalogyGuy (945258) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166356)

A normal human will get reamed in court without a lawyer.

And since this isn't a problem of GPL copyright but rather copyright ownership itself, a lawyer would be infinitely better to talk to than the bozos here on Slashdot.

Part-time employer lays claim to your other work? (0)

Senes (928228) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166030)

Working for a university on a part-time basis.

Seriously, how can they lay claim to work performed on one's own time if it's part-time? Besides; don't tell people what you're doing. Post it online without using your legal name or informing your employer. If by sheer coincidence they find it, it's already too late.

Lawyer time? (2, Insightful)

gringer (252588) | more than 3 years ago | (#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? (4, Informative)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166088)

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.

Re:Lawyer time? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166160)

my employees have no right to distribute them.

If you allow them to work on the code they have written, you must provide it to them under some terms. In order to remain GPL-compliant, those terms must be the terms of the GPL, unless you are going to attempt to claim <insert local fair dealing-equivalent here> - and working on code for commercial development is not likely to meet those criteria.

Re:Lawyer time? (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166174)

No. You're on crack. Employees don't need to be "licensed" to develop code for me.

Re:Lawyer time? (1)

geminidomino (614729) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166282)

No. You're on crack. Employees don't need to be "licensed" to develop code for me.

Don't be so sure... that seems like the same kind of idiotic logic that lead to things like EULAs being valid because paging into RAM is "copying".

Not saying it makes sense or that he's not on crack... just saying beware the lawyers...

Re:Lawyer time? (1)

Rophuine (946411) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166176)

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 copyright.

That is entirely separate to what they can DO with the code once written, but that's between them and the licences on the code they're developing on top of. If you're an employee, it's also not your problem if they can't do what they intended to with it: the company made the decision to hire you, the company went down the path they did (even if you were the one deciding to).

Your employer owns your work... IN THEIR EMPLOY (1)

gavron (1300111) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166036)

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 HARD QUESTION.

EASY ANSWER: Your university can contribute YOUR contributions under the GPL and open-source it.

HARD QUESTION: Which licenses of the software you used have conditions which PREVENT that software from being used in a software program/package with a conflicting license, and which NON-conflicting license would your "temporary employers" be willing to live by so that they can continue to use it.

Otherwise, your "temporary employers" are in potential violation of the licenses of the software included in the package they are using.

Nobody said this was simple.

E

Re:Your employer owns your work... IN THEIR EMPLOY (1)

ducomputergeek (595742) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166134)

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.

Re:Your employer owns your work... IN THEIR EMPLOY (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166226)

How do you explain Wayne Newton's POWER over millions?

It's the MOUSTACHE. Have you ever noticed the way it radiates SINCERITY, HONESTY & WARMTH?

It's a MOUSTACHE you want to take HOME and introduce to NANCY SINATRA!

-- Zippy the gavron

It was GPL before, so is GPL now (1)

Alain Williams (2972) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166044)

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 ?

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (5, Informative)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166150)

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.

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166292)

I love the explanation, i can understand that :-)

Now what happens if Alice is not hired to write code changes but to do something else (manage their server let's say), and feels like helping claire and the world and write GPL code. Can Bob take over that code too ?

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166336)

Depends on your employment agreement and the jurisdiction.

Typically, though, if you're doing anything your employer might like to claim you should probably get an explicit written disclaimer of interest in the project from them. If you're worried that they might say no, then you should be really worried :)

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (1)

blackraven14250 (902843) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166346)

That depends on the employment contract. If it says "code produced while under the employ of .company. belongs to .company.", then it's Bob's, regardless as to whether it was written in free time or not. If it says "code produced during working hours at .company.", then it's Alice's. The phrasings I'm using may not be 100% correct, as IANAL, but the general idea is there.

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (1)

blackraven14250 (902843) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166364)

That depends on the employment contract. If it says "code produced while under the employ of .company. belongs to .company.", then it's Bob's, regardless as to whether it was written in free time or not. If it says "code produced during working hours at .company.", then it's Alice's. The phrasings I'm using may not be 100% correct, as IANAL, but the general idea is there..

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166332)

FACT 6: if the Bob is a big enough entity then the FSF may decided to sue Bob

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (1)

GlassHeart (579618) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166334)

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.

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166366)

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:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (2, Informative)

dudpixel (1429789) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166182)

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 these changes need to be removed from the public work...so that the public work can still meet the terms of the GPL.

They can indeed continue to use it in-house provided it is not "distributed" from one party to another.

As correctly pointed out in other posts in this thread, the GPL only comes into play when the work is copied/distributed. You can do whatever you like with GPL code in-house. It is only when you later distribute that work to another party, that you become bound by the terms of the GPL.

Also consider this: Releasing code publicly that your employer owns the copyright to, is actually stealing from your employer.

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (1)

517714 (762276) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166324)

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.

Re:It was GPL before, so is GPL now (1)

dudpixel (1429789) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166358)

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.

Ask a lawyer (5, Informative)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166056)

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.

Re:Ask a lawyer (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166178)

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).

Re:Ask a lawyer (1)

Rakshasa Taisab (244699) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166218)

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 code for them? Since it was his own project initially the former claim could very well work.

Re:Ask a lawyer (4, Interesting)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166286)

Actually, what matters is whether or not he distributed the software, preferably under a GPL license, before he was employed. If not, then there's simply no record that he ever did any work before he went to work for them. Whereas if he had distributed it them he could go to that other person and get a copy of the software from them.

If project is not distributed, GPL doesn't apply (4, Informative)

Bananenrepublik (49759) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

i guess you got yourself in trouble (1)

someone1234 (830754) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166064)

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.

IANAL but... (1)

wolrahnaes (632574) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166072)

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 offer of source and such, it's a clear cut violation.

Re:IANAL but... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166204)

I think he understands that the code he wrote WHILE EMPLOYED is his employers.

The question is does his employer have claim on the code he wrote BEFORE starting employment.

So for example :
1. I had a class foo, with 2 functions : func1() and func2(). I developed these in my time on top of the GPL code.

2. I get hired to extend MY class, so now I have a class foo with functions : func1(), func2(), func3(), func4().

3. My employer claims ownership over the everything.

What is obvious is that the employer can and should claim func3() and func4() - they paid for it.

The OP should have also claim to func1() and func2() as he did them on his own time.

By the GPL, if he used his code (func1(), func2()) for his employer, that means that he has redistributed it right?(correct me if I'm wrong someone, IANAL). So does that mean that the OP is in fact in breach of the GPL (if he hasn't released his original changes?)

Can he release his code up to the moment of getting hired, under GPL without pissing his employer off?

Re:IANAL but... (1)

mr_mischief (456295) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166294)

Released his changes to whom? I'm sure if he's being paid to improve the work he has provided the work to the employer. You never need to "publish" source code to follow the GPL. You only need to provide the source to those to whom you provided the binaries and third parties who ask for it after receiving the binaries from someone.

If the uni never distributes the binaries, then the OP never has to provide the source to anyone other than the uni.

Re:IANAL but... (4, Informative)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166246)

I've heard solid arguments in both directions as to whether internal corporate use counts as distribution,

By whom? The only time I've ever heard anyone suggest that internal corporate use counts as distribution was by the MySQL morons as an attempt to scare up business. The FSF even came out against them saying they were wrong and their arguments were damaging to the community.

Re:IANAL but... (0, Flamebait)

timmarhy (659436) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166300)

that's retarded. the GPL only applies on distribution, so if i install xwidget on sally's work pc i need to make sure she gets a cd of the source? no, total fail.

Short term career (2, Insightful)

LostMyBeaver (1226054) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

If you are a contractor... (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166098)

you own your work by default. This applies in the absence of any other agreement. If you are an employee, your employment contract may override this.

Re:If you are a contractor... (2, Informative)

Rophuine (946411) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166192)

In Australia, there's a legal precedent saying that code written by an employee is owned by the employer, even if the employment contract doesn't mention it.

Re:If you are a contractor... (3, Informative)

Willbur (196916) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166296)

It is legislation, not case law. Section 35(6) of the Australian Copyright Act 1968: "Where a literary ... work ... is made by the author in pursuance of the terms of his or her employment by another person under a contract of service or apprenticeship, that other person is the owner of any copyright subsisting in the work ... ." Computer Software is a 'literary work' for the purposes of the act.

Note that it isn't all code written by an employee, just code written for your job.

IANAL, but you can look at the law yourself: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/ca1968133/s35.html [austlii.edu.au]

Re:If you are a contractor... (2, Informative)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166302)

Contractors are not employees.

But the other point about this that is never mentioned is that contractors implicitly give licenses to whoever is paying them. Without a written contract that license is often interpreted VERY broadly.

2 separate issues (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166106)

As said previously. anything you did on your employer's time using their resources is automaticaly copyrighted to them. You just work for them. Its a standard clause in all job contracts (you can hope yours did not have this specified and get away with it but i doubt it). Even a clerk all the spreadsheets i create to make MY job easier in matter of fact belong to the company. So if I miraculously discovered the cure for cancer using these spreadsheets I have to fortfeit that discovery and rights to the cure to the company that I work for. Sure we sell tyres but copyright rules in contracts are rules :)

However as far as the finished product being marketable and made profit from by your employer. That is a licencing issue on its own. Unless your employers's project fully commits to the GPL therefore keeping in line with the libraries licences then there should be no problem. If they want to branch off and breach the licences then they will have to remove the libraries that are in breach and wind another way to make it work. Or code their own.

You missed the most important point (1)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166114)

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.

Why wasn't this taken care of in the contract? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166116)

According to your post, you were hired to work specifically on your project that you already started on your own. And you didn't think that ownership of the copyright would be a problem? It didn't occur to you that you needed to put that in your work contract?

Never bring any code you did at home to work without a written agreement that it belongs to you. Never even use an open-source software that you have contributed to.

Exact laws will vary from place to place which is why you need to get a lawyer, but in general it's very common that anything you do at work as well as anything work related you do at home belongs to your employer by default. If the line between work and your own projects becomes slightly blurry you need a written agreement to avoid any misunderstandings.

Short Answer: Yes (1)

nebosuke (1012041) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166124)

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 binaries--and even then, you only need to provide the source to the people to whom you distributed the binaries.

What fun... (1)

nedlohs (1335013) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166126)

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 license to use it as they see fit, not sure if that would fly though). They might never distribute it though.

Yes, IANAL. Yes, trusting me for legal advice would be really stupid. Yes, those are just my opinions and understandings of how these things work.

Personal and Private fork? (1)

DigiShaman (671371) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166130)

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.

Yet once more: talk to a lawyer (1)

Estanislao Martnez (203477) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166154)

I can't stress enough that the people who are suggesting talking to a lawyer are right.

Still, if I may hazard a guess, if you started the project before you were hired, and you have a standard relationship to your employer, there's a good chance that both you and your employer have a claim to the overall work, because it contains parts that you wrote on your own, and parts that you wrote as their employee. In this case, then yeah, you don't have ownership nor license to the parts that they own--and over time, those parts may have become inseparable from the original parts that are yours.

The copyright is not a problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166166)

They can have it, and they have the right to own it.

However, if there's even a tiny little bit of GPL code involved, they'll have to release the software under the GPL to their users and provide them with a means to access the sources. That, however, doesn't mean they have to distribute it.

What kind of software are we talking about?

Can you prove any of it? (1)

topham (32406) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166170)

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.

This is a nice question (1)

mukund (163654) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166184)

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:This is a nice question (2, Informative)

Drgnkght (449916) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166322)

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 considered theft and not distribution. This would leave him with no rights to the code at all.

Employee or Contractor? (1)

cgenman (325138) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166210)

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 will definitely walk away with a license for everything and ownership of the code that you created for them, but they might not own the code that you created before you were hired.

And if they don't want you to, you can't published the extended version of the code. They definitely own that. And welcome to the new academia, where all knowledge is a secret to be jealously guarded.

copyrights and contracts (1)

Spazmania (174582) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166212)

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 under the GPL.

Any software you produced during hours for which you did not receive a wage reported on an IRS form W-2 almost certainly still belongs to you, regardless of any papers you may have signed prior to writing it. They can't stop you from releasing it, but they can very likely release you from their employ and/or withdraw any other association you may have with them if you do.

A letter from GNU's lawyer to their lawyer can go a long way towards resolving the matter. Writing such letters is one of the reasons the GNU folks keep a lawyer in their employ. Avail yourself of the benefit.

IANAL (2, Interesting)

jschottm (317343) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

the open source licenses are not EULA's (1)

Tei (520358) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166220)

You can get a GPL program, put a Public Domain part, add a Very Closed Source code, compile the whole thing, and work with it. You can't distribute the result, but you can use the result.

You can make a GPL program, get hired to continue working on this program, add a Public Domain part, add a Very Closed Source code... and the result can be distributed only if you donated to your employer your work wen you was hired. So probably can't be distributed.

IANAL.

Not GPL vs. LGPL (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166258)

Some early commenters on the submission pointed out that it matters whether the libraries were licensed under the LGPL vs. the GPL.

I'm part of the IANAL chorus, but I still have to say that I think these early commenters are wrong. GPL vs. LGPL is about licensing, i.e., permission granted by the copyright holders, directly or indirectly, to make use of a work in a given fashion. The main questions that the submitter has are about the actual copyright, i.e., who has the right to license or forbid others' use of the work.

I'm not sure... (1)

Dayofswords (1548243) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166262)

" I've been working on my own on a project that uses GPL-licensed libraries."
" 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.
assuming you licensed it under the GPLv3

No, you were not employed by them at the time and had licensed it under the GPL. When they hired you, no copyright is transfered. even if you did build on the software it was GPL and has to stay GPL which means you have copyright over the entire code, except for the libraries. while you transfer copyright to your employer on code you make during your employment, they have to agree to the GPL to modify it and thus the copyright goes back to you.

GPL Quote:
9. Acceptance Not Required for Having Copies.

You are not required to accept this License in order to receive or run a copy of the Program. Ancillary propagation of a covered work occurring solely as a consequence of using peer-to-peer transmission to receive a copy likewise does not require acceptance. However, nothing other than this License grants you permission to propagate or modify any covered work. These actions infringe copyright if you do not accept this License. Therefore, by modifying or propagating a covered work, you indicate your acceptance of this License to do so.
-END-

basically, they can have copies, they can run it, but they can not modify it unless they agree. if they do not agree they may not modify it and use it or it breaks copyright. since they are modifying it they have agreed, so you should be allowed to release it as you wish.

BUT:
if he does give it to someone to work on it who is directly under the control of him and they do not give it out to some one, then it may not be a violation

GPL Quote: ... This License acknowledges your rights of fair use or other equivalent, as provided by copyright law.

You may make, run and propagate covered works that you do not convey, without conditions so long as your license otherwise remains in force. You may convey covered works to others for the sole purpose of having them make modifications exclusively for you, or provide you with facilities for running those works, provided that you comply with the terms of this License in conveying all material for which you do not control copyright. Those thus making or running the covered works for you must do so exclusively on your behalf, under your direction and control, on terms that prohibit them from making any copies of your copyrighted material outside their relationship with you.
-END

I'm not in anyway close to a lawyer =p
so you may want to call the SFC and ask them about it
http://www.softwarefreedom.org/about/contact/ [softwarefreedom.org]

my thoughts (1)

LetterRip (30937) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166268)

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) The GPL clause only kicks in on distribution - non distributed changes are not required to be GPLed
4) If they use the GPL librarys and distribute the code, then they would be obligated to distribute the code changes

Where did you develop the initial code? (1)

xploraiswakco (703340) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166270)

"I am a recent graduate, and I've been working on my own on a project that uses GPL-licensed libraries..."

Where you started with coding can have some issues too, if the code you developed on your own was also developed on university computers they may have some claim to that too, especially if you developed the code for an assignment or something similar. This too can be dependant on factors such as the country you are in, and how it may relate to the license the libraries are under.

In the end, as long as the employer has no intention of distributing your code, then they own all the code you have developed for them, and as for GPL or LGPL licensed libraries, there should be no violation issues.

Re:Where did you develop the initial code? (1)

xploraiswakco (703340) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166284)

I forgot to add, what also needs to be remembered is that Universities make a lot of money from Patents and Copyrights on work they have done through research and other means, so it make plenty of sense that a University is less likely to be interested releasing code under BSD or GPL type licenses.

Your employer owns the work they pay you to do (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#32166274)

Why is code so different? I worked on a construction site. I would like to open the building up to shelter the homeless, but now my employer is saying that the building I worked on belongs to them!!!

Release it and damn their eyes (0, Troll)

Rogerborg (306625) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166278)

Your employer is (very likely) paying you out of my tax money. I - and you, and her, and everyone else - owns that code, not them.

Legal questions should be answered by a lawyer (4, Informative)

hackerjoe (159094) | more than 3 years ago | (#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!

Doesn't matter what they want (1)

Nitage (1010087) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166362)

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 they do not currently have the right to use the final project at all.

The specifics matter... a lot. (1)

Just Brew It! (636086) | more than 3 years ago | (#32166390)

It is impossible to say what's right here without knowing a lot more about the situation. Are the libraries GPL or LGPL licensed? Are you merely linking with the libraries, or is this product a modified version of one or more of the libraries? Is it being distributed outside your employer's organization, or only being used internally?

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