Copyright or copyleft?

Mar 1st, 2002

By Jeff Bairstow
ATD Online Editorial Director

Recently, the British magazine The New Scientist deliberately published an article without copyrighting it. Thus, anyone who chose to do so could republish the article in print or on the Web without violating the original publisher's copyright. I don't have room to print the article here, but you can see it at www.newscientist.com/hottopics/copyleft/copyleftart.jsp. And, of course, you can publish the article yourself on your company's web site or in a newsletter, as you choose. The magazine calls this right to free publication "copyleft." It may be a sign of things to come, particularly on the Web.

Here at PennWell, we copyright everything we publish—from magazines and newsletters, to seminar content and promotional materials, to the content of our many web sites. We do this to protect our intellectual property, the currency of our editorial content and the "value-added" work we do as editors. When all the material we published was in print format, copyright protection was quite simple. Every magazine and newsletter carried the familiar statement "© 2002, PennWell Corp., Tulsa, OK, All Rights Reserved," just as this copy of Laser Focus World does.

As you might expect, PennWell protects its copyrights vigorously. We get frequent requests to republish material that has appeared in our publications. Some countries, notably in the Far East, are not signatories to the Copyright Convention and, as a consequence, republishers do not always seek our permission. There's not much we can do about that. Microsoft faces a similar problem with the pirating of software in those countries.

Copyright is much harder to pursue in these days of ubiquitous electronic media. Naturally, we attempt to protect our web site content with the familiar copyright statement but it is very hard to stop people from downloading our pages and republishing them. We can make it difficult to reproduce our web pages but any HTML programmer can easily find ways around whatever protections we institute. And, indeed, the Web has a long history of "free" content, going back to the days when the majority of the WWW users were academics and researchers.

This is still the case among a sizeable section of the world of software developers. The so-called "Open Source" movement began in 1984 when MIT scientist Richard Stallman set up the Free Software Foundation. Stallman was incensed with software companies that kept their source code a secret. Stallman believes that this not only produces badly written, bug-loaded software, but also keeps computer scientists from learning from each other's code. There are now thousands of software projects developing open source code.

The most familiar of these projects is Linux, an operating system developed in the early 1990s by Finnish student Linus Torvalds. By some estimates, there are now around 20 million computers worldwide that run some form of Linux, including several commercial packages built around the free open-source version. Thousands of programmers have devised modifications to Linux. A committee of Linux experts reviews the suggested modifications and, if warranted, adds them to the system.

Many of the open-source software programs are covered by the "General Public License" (GPL; see www.fsf.org/licenses/gpl.html). The GPL is a copyleft agreement allowing such software to be copied and modified by anyone as long as they agree to release the modified software under a copyleft.

I'd like to be able to say that this column is produced under a copyleft but, sadly, I do not own the copyright. All the writing and editing that I do for PennWell publications, whether print or electronic, is "© 2002, PennWell Corp., Tulsa, OK, All Rights Reserved."

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