[oclug] Semi-[OT]: Source code ethical dilemma

elefino kevinmcl at magma.ca
Sun Sep 25 15:36:00 EDT 2005

On Wednesday 21 September 2005 14:36, Adrian Irving-Beer wrote:
> Now that I realise legal issues may still play a part, I'm both trying
> to understand them (hence my very serious "Am I missing something?"),
> and also trying to see if the various house-breaking analogies are
> misapplied for this particular case.  I would, of course, prefer to
> reduce this to an ethical issue again; hence my tone of advocacy.

The various house-breaking analogies are misapplied. 

You acquired the thing, into which you "broke", quite legally. It is 
yours. As I recall, you did not list any conditions that you accepted 
before acquiring it, did you?

The laptop is in your house, not your neighbor's, you didn't need 
to break in to get to it -- it was abandoned after a guest moved 
out with no forwarding address.

A closer analogy might be to an appliance that you bought, or 
picked up at a yard sale, perhaps at the end of the day, when 
the original owner couldn't be bothered to pack up the unsold 
stuff and said "Here, take it if you want it... free."

You get it home and it kinda works, but there's a problem. You 
happen to have the peculiar screwdriver bits you need to open 
the unit (much like the decrypting skill that most homeowners 
just don't bother to have in their toolbox). Ignoring the tags that 
say: "No user serviceable parts inside" or "Opening voids warranty" 
(since it's well past warranty), you open open the unit. 

You fix it and use it with satisfaction, or you give it to a relative 
who has more use for it.

How about the wooden puzzle-box that I bought last year?
It's got a bunch of interlocking parts, that must be moved in 
a certain sequence, in order to open it... or re-close it. 

It's entertaining to figure out (especially for somebody like 
me who forgets after a few days or weeks and must re-learn 
how to work the puzzle), and it looks nice -- being fashioned 
of tightly fitted, polished wood bits.

I liked it enough that I got some pieces of wood (or cast some 
shaped clay bits in a kiln, to make one myself. Better yet, having 
understood the principle, I made one of my own design. It's related 
in operation to the one that I bought (as any such toy must inevitably 
be), but it has different shaped pieces and is bigger. 

Have I broken the law? Have I done anything unethical?  I think neither.
I tell other hobbyists what I did to make my own 3-D puzzle toy, 
and they in turn offer suggestions for improved technique or 
improved design.  No legal or ethical problems there, that I see.

> My original post was about the ethics.  The end decision (still not
> made yet) will likely be primarily an ethical one, but will take into
> account the level of legal liability versus how much I can afford.

You can't go wrong with the most frequent suggestion (other than 
'ask a lawyer') that you rewrite the whole thing, especially if, as you've 
stated, you've already written a greater amount than what remains of 
original code.  I mean, if you are two-thirds of the way there, go the 
rest of the way and be unencumbered both legally and ethically. 

Include an acknowledgment just as might somebody include an 
acknowledgment of a special teacher, or an author acknowledges 
a helpful editor. Include the history, if you 
like, stating that you went the final step of re-coding even the 
bits of the old program that still worked, so that you could offer 
your version absolutely unencumbered as open source.

As I said in the other post, legally there's nothing. It was free. 
What could you be sued for? Depriving the author of zero dollars?
What percentage is a lawyer going to get?  Don't worry about it.


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