Legal Issues in Free Software
It is important when re-using and developing Free Software (also known as Open Source), to understand the legal issues surrounding them. Much of these legal issues are focused around Free Software licences, and the rights and obligations that they provide and impose. Having a basic understanding of these legal issues enable users to effectively use and comply with the requirements of Free Software licences.
You can follow this link for more Frequently Asked Questions that can help you understand the legal implications of Free Software licensing.
What is software licensing?
Generally, a licence is an authorization to use, release, or distribute someone else's property. This includes intellectual property such as a piece of text, a song, or artwork. Software licences are therefore licences that inform users of how the rights holder over a piece of software (usually the author) wants that software to be used and what freedoms and/or restrictions it has. Without a licence, many uses of the software may be prohibited due to the default application of copyright law.
A Free Software licence is a software licence whose terms allow a user to obtain and enjoy the four freedoms of Free Software; namely, the freedom to use, modify, share, and improve software. Conversely, the opposite of a Free Software licence is a proprietary software licence, which restricts users from enjoying any of the four freedoms of Free Software. Even software that is distributed free of charge (gratis) can be considered to be proprietary software, as long as any of the four freedoms are restricted.
Copyleft licences are a type of Free Software licences that allow the user to enjoy the four freedoms, under the condition that those freedoms remain intact in any further distribution of the software or derivative works.
The absence of a licence does not make software Free Software. Software is copyrighted by default, so unless it has been explicitly and validly placed into the public domain, using code without a licence may be considered copyright infringement.
Why should software projects use Free Software licences?
Software is the most important cultural technology of the 21st century. It is almost impossible to imagine daily life today without it. When others control a tool as important to society as software, they can exert great influence over our lives and actions.
For example, whoever controls the search engines that we use has the power to determine what we find online; whoever controls the software on which our online transactions are run can have access to our personal data. It would be dangerous to democracy if the critical social instrument that software constitutes were controlled by only a small group.
The four freedoms of Free Software can therefore be applied to hand control of the future of software back to the people. A Free Software licence is an explicit way of granting these freedoms, so that users of a piece of such licensed software are able to use, study, share, and improve the tools that it provides.