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I Hate Linux

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Linux and the Amazing Expiring Copyright

Copyright, love it or hate it, it's a fact of life in much of the world, especially here in the US. The General Public License is based on the protections and powers of copyright. That the owner of a property may decide how it can be used in certain areas... but only so long as they own the copyright. Once it expires the work enters the public domain and all are free too benefit from it and use it as they see fit.

Linux too will one day have its copyright expire and enter the public domain... however this might not work as quickly as you'd expect.

According to a few sources, Linus was born on December 28th, 1969, and with a little math from our friends at DeathClock.com, I would estimate (very scientifically of course) his death to be on or around October 9th, 2042, and plus 70 years (assuming no new copyright extensions), by my estimate on Sunday October 9th, 2112 Linux will enter the public domain.

Remember, you heard it here first!

But wait... it's not quite that simple is it, Linux is no longer just one persons creation, it started that way sure, but over time many persons have contributed code to the kernel. Each of those modifications constitutes a derivative work, each getting its own protection under copyright law.

So you could say that Linux benefits from a near perpetual copyright.

Most likely the only version that we (more likely our children) will ever see enter the public domain is the original version that Linus Torvalds wrote entirely himself and had announced on comp.os.minix back on October 5th, 1991.

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I am pro Microsoft in most ways, this opinion of course is not universal. Many see them as the ‘evil empire' and the chief enemy of the open source software movement and Linux in general (see /. for almost limitless examples).

How could Microsoft use the impending expiration of the Linux copyright to their advantage? Two words: time travel.

In theory, they could beat this by simply breaking out one of their secret time machines (with their pocket book, why just have one?) and kidnapping Linus in order to take him back in time 70+ years, just to kill him. Upon returning to the present day Linux would be public domain.

Of course... doing so would only free up the original version of Linux... any later versions with contributions from others would still be protected as derivative works and the only way to completely free up the different versions into the public domain would be a full scale slaughter of every kernel developer who would be first transported to the distant past... which is not too likely, even for Microsoft.

Just an interesting thought to consider, even if it is all purely theoretical.

Addendum: To the doctor who will one day sign my death certificate who I hope is reading this: When that fateful day comes, please postdate the date of death by a century or two.

*Linux is a Registered Trademark of Linus Torvalds, for now.


  • given the whole GPL vs. BSD-style licence holy war, the eventual expiration of the copyright on GPL'ed code is rather funny, IMO. especially given the religious fervor of people like RMS.


    By Blogger hypatia dot ca, at 7:32 AM  

  • ... especially here in the US ...

    Jeah, that is it. US is stupid country. You have PATRIOT Act, you can patent everything, you dont have freedom of speech (have just free speech areas).

    No need to comment anymore.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:59 AM  

  • Interesting.


    By Blogger M, at 3:20 PM  

  • Doesn't this apply to Microsoft too? Don't they have software titles older than '91? Besides, who would use the kernel from that long ago, in the future or now? The hardware will undoubtably change by the time the copyright expires. The only benefit of having the kernel not under copyright protection is no more GPL, meaning companies could make proprietary derived works.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:34 PM  

  • Actually, because Linux is a collaborative effort the expiration (70/50 years depending on where applied) of the copyright is counted from the death of the last developer who has contributed to the project. That would probably add considerable length of years to your little math.

    In a collaborate piece of work, the contributed code is not a `derivative´ but an accomplished part of the end product.

    Time travel? BS.

    - Demokritos -

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:40 PM  

  • In theory, this applies to Microsoft, but in a slightly different way. After say... Windows 2000 (just as an example, lets not nitpick the version) becomes public domain in a century or two, one can do what they want with it... but they do not have the code to it. Just because a piece of software enters the public domain does not mean that the former owner is compelled to release the source code to it.

    Take the NT4 and 2000 source code, they are now ‘out there’, at least in part due to last years leak... but this code is not sufficient to build either system. So even with the available tree after the associated OS goes into the public domain, it would do interested parties little good unless you could convince Microsoft to release the entire tree.

    Yes, I know time travel is BS, but all of this is just an academic theory, not to be taken overly serious.

    You are incorrect though on your view on the collaborative vs derivative view of the project. Copyright protects individual creations, and each ‘release’ of a given project has a copyright independent to all of the others, even when they derive from the same parent. If there was only a single version of a project available ever, then yes, the collaborate argument would hold some weight. Unfortunately, as you or anyone else can download old versions of the kernel, gcc or just about any other OSS project, it proved my argument of derivative versions.

    Should Foo 1.0 come into the public domain in 90 years, it is fair game, and just because development is still occurring on Foo 78.3, which is loosely based on the original Foo 1.0. Foo 78.3 may be copyrighted, and contain now public domain code, our grand kids will be able to do what they like with Foo 1.0. And, in order to do what they want with Foo 78.3, they’ll have to wait quite a while for the last of the developers on that release to die and for the copyright to expire on it.

    This is why a movie based on a public domain book has a new copyright while the original source material does not anymore. In fact, you can take that public domain book, make a few changes and publish it as your own derivative work. Creating new versions does nothing to protect the original after it’s entered the public domain.

    By Blogger Brendan, at 12:08 PM  

  • What is your point? Sure it's an interesting thought exercise to consider when Linux would enter public domain, but was there supposed to be some message to this post?

    By Blogger nobody, at 3:08 PM  

  • this is "me at werk" from slashdot

    first: fix your sig link, it's to the blog and not just this article.

    second: if microsoft guys were going to go back in time to kill linus, why not just prevent him from creating linux in the first place? this way they wouldn't have to "slaughter all the people who worked on linux".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:40 PM  

  • Effigies: All this post was intended to be was an interesting idea which few have ever considered.

    Anonymous, at 5:40 PM: To your first point, I link to the blog as a whole instead of the article as I’m not a big fan of making it easy on people. I figure, it’s good for a person now and then to have to dig through some extra content in order to find the page they are looking for... after all, you still found this page didn’t you?

    As to your second point... the reason killing him after he has written it rather than before is two fold. First, there is the theory that if he didn’t do it, someone else eventually would, and by being able to control the creation and release of such a thing from the beginning... one is, in theory better able to control it later.

    Second, I would expect that if at anytime Linux were to end up in the public domain, we would see a much greater level of factioning within the industry. Suddenly, instead of many Linux venders who try to stay within a norm of (quasi) compatibility with the others, would embark on a creation of their own proprietary distros, distros that they would not have to share, nor give away anything in the way of specs on. In short, a revival of the Unix wars of years past.

    By Blogger Brendan, at 4:55 PM  

  • And your point is? Yes, copyright on the original kernel will expire eventually - which doesn't really mean anything.

    Anyone will be able to use it, but it's not like Microsoft will immediately pounce on a 70+ year old kernel and start hacking away. GPL prevents unfair "copy, recompile, embrace and extend" type of competition between proprietaty and free products. It's not supposed to lock up the code eternally - it's just supposed to give the little guys a chance in the world of super corporations.

    As for the time travle bit - huh? First of all, Linus is not 70. So to make Linux enter the public domain tomorrow you would have to take Linux to say year 1930, have him invent Linux, GPL and the open x86 architecture to go with it and then promptly kill him. I don't know about you, but I really don't think that people in the 30's would be ready for that :)

    Of course all logic aside, let's assume that somehow, despite the technological issues and all that you succeded. Upon returning back to 2005 you would probably notice that Microsoft never existed...

    Because the key to Gate's success in the OS field was apparent lack of a deacent affordable operating system for IBM's open x86 architecture. He came up with the best, and cheepest solution - and dominated the market.

    However, since you were so kind and brought Linus back in time, people now had kick ass hardware, and a free OS since the 30's. If there was free open OS on the market when Gates' was just starting up he would never make his millions...

    Hence - sorry dude. Insteade of undermining Linux, you just came up with a great concept how to prevent MS from ever being created :) Time travle is tricky that way...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:58 PM  

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