Rodrigues Costa

Mobile Developer

Let’s now talk about a topic which interests me quite a bit, especially as a programmer: Copyright. You might already know something about Copyright: you know the classic © symbol and the “All rights reserved” text. You know it restricts by whom and how a creative work can be used. You might also know what Fair Use is and that it allows you to make parodies of films or music. But do you know how to make it so people can easily reuse your work? Also, do you know what is the relationship between Copyright and Open Source? Let’s find out about all that!

Copyright = copy right. So, basically who has the rights to copy a work, right? Well, sort of.

Copyright is about who has the ownership to a creative work, those who have the ownership can then decide by who or how it is reproduced, how derivative works are created from it, etc.

Creative works can be books, films, music, television, computer software, among others. Nowadays copyright to a work is usually given once it is completed and published. So, if you make a song, a video or a movie, then the copyright is given to you and you decide how it is used.

Of course, there are ways to still use a copyrighted work legally even without permission under what is called Fair Use. So what’s Fair Use?

Fair Use

Fair Use is related to the way a copyrighted work is used. We could say that it is whether a work is used fairly related to the copyright owners rights.

Generally to be considered fair use the copying of the original work must be either limited or modify the original work in such a way as to be commentary, a criticism or a parody.

Fair Use is what allows things such as video essays, Youtube Poops and memes to exist without such derivative works being considered a copyright violation.

Ok, so we’ve seen quite a couple things already, but there’s still a bit more before we see about the Create Commons. Did you know for example that copyright can expire? And do you know what happens to a work when its copyright expires? Let’s find out what this so-called Public Domain is!

Public Domain

Copyright can expire, a work is only protected by copyright laws for a certain amount of time after its creation and, after the copyright expires, the work is freely available for use by anyone. Works not protected by copyright are said to be under the Public Domain.

Well, but for how long a work is protected? This varies by country, usually it’s for the life of the author plus an amount of years after their death. On the U.S., for example, the copyright length is for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. You can check this Wikipedia page to know the copyright length on a country of your choice

Ok, but what does that effectively means for the average Joe? An example might be in order:

Let’s consider Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs film released in 1937. You probably know the Snow White fairy tale it is based on. And you probably also know how the fairy tale is basically free for any one to use whichever way they see fit. That’s is the public domain in action!

Of course, the Disney’s version is a derivative work original enough to deserve copyright protection. It’s not the only one which would deserve such thing though. While the history itself is public domain, other elements created from it might not be: say you bought a book for the Snow White Fairy, the history itself might have changes, and that would make it copyrighted. And what about the book illustrations? The translation itself? The book cover art? All of those are derivatives of the Public Domain tale and are therefore copyrighted.

There’s even such a thing as a Public Domain Day which is about celebrating at January 1st of every new year which creative works will have their copyright expiring.

Now we know a lot about Copyright, Fair Use and the Public Domain, which means we know about people needing permission to use our work, people using our work without permission for acceptable reasons and our work being usable by everyone however they want sometime after we die. But, what if we want to make it easier for others to use our work? Let’s see how the Creative Commons helps with that.

Creative Commons

Let’s say you finished your work and it’s your masterpiece. You want to share it on the internet for everyone to see. Which license do you use?

Well, if your masterpiece is your OC from a video game series you could just go the “Original Character, do not steal” route and use the default of “All Rights reserved”. But what if it actually were some other type of work?

Let’s say you masterpiece instead is a comic strip. These are all the rage nowadays and people love to share those on social media, especially if it’s one of those relatable comics. Which license do you use?

Well, if that comic becomes popular people will most likely want to edit your comic to make new jokes based on it. Changing the characters to be the ones from their favorite TV show being just an example. Is there a way to, by default, allow people to make those changes and redistribute them?

What if it’s a book? Do you want to make it free so anyone can read it? If so, do you worry about whether other people will be able to edit it and share their changes? What license would you choose? Is there a way to give just enough freedom to other people so they can read it for free but you could sell it afterwards if you wanted?

Enter the Creative Commons!

Well, but what is the Creative Commons?

Basically the Creative Commons is a set of 6 licenses that we can use on our work. Let’s just say that licensing under the Creative Commons could be considered a way to put something under the Creative Common Knowledge of humanity.

The most permissive of these licenses (the CC BY) allows anybody to use our work any way they want, as long as they give us atribbution credits.

The most restrictive of these licenses (the CC BY-NC-ND) allows use of our work only when giving attribution, for non commercial purposes and disallows sharing derivative works.

For a concise explanation of the CC licenses see the following comic, which itself is under a Creative Commons License:

Creative Commons "Creative Commons" by HackToon! is licensed under CC BY 4.0

The 6 Creative Commons Licenses are:

  • Attribution (CC BY)
  • Attribution ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)
  • Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND)
  • Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

You should by now have learned what each of these should mean, but here are some of the most interesting of those licenses and their use:

Attribution (CC BY)

With this license anyone can use the work in any way they want, commercial uses included, as long as the new work gives attribution to the creator of the original work. This can be useful, for example, in a web comic such as the one that illustrates this section.

An example of work that benefits of this is the Sintel 3D animated open movie which is animated with the open source Blender tool and whose final movie and all the content (such as the music and the models) used to create it are available under the CC BY license.

Attribution ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

This license allows use of the content in any way, commercial use included, as long as attribution is given, the new work must be distributed under the same license.

This, for example is used on Wikipedia which has all its text licensed under CC BY-SA

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

This is the most restrictive of the licenses. It only allows using the sharing the work unmodified with attribution and with no intention of commercial use.

This is useful, for example, as a license to use in your blog (this blog right now uses this license).

It can also be useful a license to a book if you want to allow free sharing of it, but restrict commercialization or third-party changes of its content. As an example, the Modern C book by Jens Gustedt, a programming book about the C language, is licensed under the CC BY-NC-ND.

There’s one final license related to the Creative Commons that we have to see, that’s the CC0.


Remember before that I said that copyright can expire and then the work becomes freely usable by everyone? Well, you could theoretically put any work you create under the Public Domain. There’s a problem with that idea though, if you put your work in Public Domain in a specific country it might not be in the Public Domain in another country!

To solve this there’s the CC0 which is basically a Creative Commons license that tries as much as possible to put your work into the Public Domain or the closest achievable under the law. With the CC0 you waive all your right to a work in the extent possible. This way your work can be used by anyone anywhere as if it really were Public Domain!

An example of work under the CC0 license is Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley.

Software Licenses

We now know what the Creative Commons is and how it affects sharing but we still don’t know much about that kind of sharing in relation to Software, so there’s one last thing to learn about: Software Licenses.

Copyright actually also affects software! All software by default has the copyright given to its authors and it can only be used or modified under their permission. So, is it any surprise people thought about a way to share their software source code so people could modify it too?

Before we continue I need to make sure you know what software and source code is.

A software is composed of several lines of code, each line is a instruction that tells the computer processor what to do. All the lines of code from a software are collectively called “source code”. Usually the source code is written in a programming language, which is a language created solely for the purpose of writing code. That language is easy to a human to understand and is usually converted to machine code (which is the language the computer actually understands). The result of this conversion is usually called a “binary”, which is the software in a way it can be only used, and normally can’t be modified.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, you should know that there are basically two kinds of software which we will talk about: closed source software and open source software.

Closed Source Software

Closed source software, usually also called proprietary software, are software which don’t have the source code available to its users.

Let’s illustrate a bit of the concepts with a physical object:

Let’s say you have a physical book, what can you do with it? Can you lend it to a friend? Yes, you can! Can you sell it to that friend? Sure, why not. Can you read its contents out loud to your child? Most certainly! Can you burn it? Not sure why you would want to do it, but yes. Can you make origami with its pages? Well, it would be weird, but sure you can. You can do anything with the book because you own it.

Ok, so let’s see about proprietary software… Do you remember that most of the software you install comes along with a EULA or a ToS? Have you ever read one of them? Those deal exactly with that: They tell what you can do with the software because you usually don’t buy the software itself, you buy a license to use the software.

So, you’re not the proprietary of the software, the software is the proprietary of you, because the license limits you on what you can do with the software!

Can I send a copy of the software to my friend? Dunno, does your license allow it? Can I install the same software on multiple machines? See the EULA. Can I resell the software? Haha, and deprive the software creators from the money from a new sale? Doubt it!

Open Source Software

When the source code of a software is freely available it is usually called a Open Source Software.

Now, the most common characteristics of Open Source Software (OSS for short) is that they allow you to reuse the code and modify it in any way you want and publish the modified software. This is due to the license the software chooses, which tells you in what ways it can be modified. There are usually two types of open source licenses: copyleft licenses and permissive licenses.

Copyleft licenses

A copyleft license is effectively a copyright license that requires that somebody who modifies a software under that kind of license and creates a derivative work publishes their work in the same license, otherwise there’s no restriction added to the code. It’s actually exactly the same as the “Share Alike” condition we saw earlier when talking about the Creative Commons but applied to code!

The more widely know copyleft licenses are the ones on the GNU GPL family, of which the GPL itself is the most well-known.

So, what are the GNU GPL family of licenses about?

For starters they are about providing the user with the 4 essential freedoms: to run the program as you want, to change it however you want, to distribute the software and to redistribute modified versions of the software.

The three most interesting of the GNU GPL family are the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) itself, the GNU Lesser General Public License (GNU LGPL) and the GNU Affero General Public License (GNU AGPL) licenses.

The GNU GPL is concerned with giving back the code to the user. The LGPL is useful for libraries and works so that a proprietary software can integrate a LGPL library and only changes to the library need to be shared. The GNU AGPL license cares about letting users have the source code even if the software is being run over a network.

You might already be familiar with these licenses since some software you use might be licensed under them, such as the VLC media player which is licensed under the GNU GPL with parts under the GNU LGPL or Anki, a popular flashcard application, which is licensed under the GNU AGPL.

Permissive licenses

Another kind of open source license are the permissive licenses (which may also be called copyfree licenses). Those licenses allow any use of the source code and, different from copyleft licenses, don’t require sharing the source code. This means that proprietary software can use code under the permissive license without having to share any modification to the code.

Some of the most popular permissive licenses are the Apache License and the MIT license. The Apache license is more verbose and deals with things that might be more important to big companies, such as patents. Wehereas the MIT license is simpler and useful if you plan is simply to make your code reusable by anyone.

The Apache license is used on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) which is the open source project behind the Android Operating System. From the AOSP code, device makers create their own version of Android to run on their phones, tablets or other devices.

The MIT license is usually useful for libraries or small projects, it can be useful in any cicunstance though. This website, for example is made in jekyll which is licensed under the MIT license! Also the source code of the entire website is also licensed under the MIT license!


So, we have learned a lot today, from copyright all the way to software licenses!

The first part about Copyright might be common knowledge, but knowledge about the existence of the Public Domain might not be that widespread.

Also, not many people might know about what the Creative Commons might be and how it can be useful. I hope this text helps a bit on that.

There is a lot to talk about Software Licenses, this text was only the tip of the iceberg. I am not a lawyer, so I can’t explain accurately all I would like to say about open source licenses. One place I could recommend you to go, if you became interested on the topic, is GitHub’s Choose a License website.

As a final note, this is not the only theme on Intellectual Property that is related somehow to Software: There is also Trademarks and Patents to talk about. There’s even a lot to be said about DRM and Piracy which are, respectively, a way to try to enforce copyright and a way to violate copyright. But that’s enough for now.

See you next time!


Here are some of the texts that were used as references for this blog post:

1. What is a Copyright? - Plagiarism Today - Accessed on 2019-10-10

What Is Fair Use? - Copyright Overview by Rich Stim - Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center - Accessed on 2019-10-11

Welcome to the Public Domain - Copyright Overview by Rich Stim - Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center - Accessed on 2019-10-11

Creative Commons licenses - Creative Commons - Accessed on 2019-10-12

CC0 - Creative Commons - Accessed on 2019-10-12

Frequently Answered Questions | Open Source Initiative - Accessed on 2019-10-12

What is free software? - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation - Accessed on 2019-10-12