2016.07.22 Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

The Republican Convention started this week with Mrs. Trump - a bit unplanned - giving the nation a dose of plagiarism for which the speechwriter rightfully offered her resignation. It topped it off with a controversy around unauthorized use of Queen's "We are the Champions".

When my children have turned in school papers, it has often been as a soft-copy - with the system checking if the paper contains phrases lifted from something already submitted. Not surprisingly, the literature reference pages always come up in red.

I am sure there are only that many ways to write "href=..." in whichever computer language, but software engineers are known for lifting nifty modules of the internet. If it is out there as open source, it can hardly be considered stealing, can it? No, you are often perfectly welcome to use it.

What many don't realize is, however, that open source libraries operate under some kind of reciprocity rules. You are free to use the code, but if you do, the body in which the code is embedded will automatically become open source as well.

There are many variations of how open your code becomes or if you need a license agreement. The main message here is that this is not a trivial matter. It may upend your company's whole business model if you can't find ways to work around it.

Just like the universities have browsing software checking the students' assignments for plagiarism, a software company's product library can be browsed for modules that also exist elsewhere in cyberspace. The resulting report tells the auditor where the modules originate and which kind of licenses exist around them.

If you think you may have polluted your company's Intellectual Property, pointing management towards the problem should earn you a bonus (and whistle blower protection.) But don't assume that there is no problem just because the company doesn't regularly check. On the contrary. There may be a cause for a big clean up and some extra education around how not to get your code highlighted.

And if you ever think about buying or selling a company where the main asset is millions of lines of code, wouldn't it be a safer bet to make sure that the Intellectual Property has not unwittingly become open source?