Joomla copyright holders and the GPL

During the past few weeks, I’ve been privileged to get a first-hand lesson on the General Public License (GPL). Yes, PICnet is lucky to have quite a bright lawyer on staff, but even he was a little unclear on the GPL, open source, and copyrights. To be honest, I’m not sure there’s many people in the Joomlasphere that have much research knowledge and legal practice in the application of the GPL, so it’s a learning lesson for everyone.

Every once in a while, I get a little morsel of understanding, which I feel is good to share with the community. Today’s installment: who the heck holds the copyright to the Joomla code, and therefore, who has the right to replace Joomla’s GPL license with some other license? Is it the core team? Is it Open Source Matters? Is it free for anyone to change the license as they see fit?

Well, I should say that I’m neither a lawyer nor 100% certain of my following answers, but I believe my thoughts below might help in better understanding this market of ideas.

From my research, and what I’ve learned through listening carefully to the GPL talk at the Joomla!Day USA by James Vasile, Open Source Matters legal counsel and lawyer at the Software Freedom Law Center (you know, the group that actually helped create the GPL!), the copyright holders of the Joomla code are the committers of code to the project. That would mean the people we’d expect, like Johan, Louis, Andrew, and others (maybe even Miro!), own the copyright to their pieces of the code. I should say, they don’t own the copyright to the entire Joomla system, but rather to the code they’ve contributed to the project.

It’s pretty powerful that individuals can give their hard work to the project, still hold copyright, but agree to have it all licensed together under the GPL.

What does this mean? Well, in my mind it means that if Joomla’s license were going to change to another type of license, everyone who has contributed substantially (I use that word without full knowledge of its power) to the code base of Joomla would all need to agree that their copyrighted code could be licensed under some other license other than the GPL. That would seem like a hard feat, since it would require quite a few hands (including people no longer on the core team) to agree together to changing the license.

Moral of this story: based on my ever growing understanding and appreciation of the GPL, significantly changing the license under which Joomla is protected would be quite an effort.

Your thoughts are appreciated, especially from GPL lawyers (anyone, anyone?). I’m here to learn as much as you all are.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 14th, 2007 at 7:20 am and is filed under GPL, Joomla, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Joomla copyright holders and the GPL”

  1. Brian Teeman says:

    i agree with your analysis but i have a question.

    without a legal assignment how can anyone claim a copyright on the aggregtaed work of others.

  2. Jason says:

    Hey Ryan,

    GPL scares me! It also scares many people that do modifications to code bases. That is why Apache came around. Apache Foundation does a lot of work on this. I have been following several projects that have converted to the apache 2.0. there is a lot of work involved the apache guys have the lawyers to make it happen safely.

    Large organization appreciate the work apache does to protect the users of such software. Thus making it a lot easier to bring Apache 2.0 licensed software in there house.

    Of course there is always exceptions. I just know I don’t need a lawyer on my staff to use Apache licensed software.

  3. David Geilhufe says:

    I sat in on a great talk once. The guy behind WordPress was teasing a VP at Sun about how hard is it to release your stuff open source?

    The VP explained that to open source something like Java, the legal copyright of every line of code had to be identified, recorded and a signature obtained to change the license. They estimated that for a normal enterprise application this would be a 2-5 year process involving a team of 100 people for Java.

    By extension, to change Joomla’s licensing, it seems you would have to identify the ownership of every line of code and then have them all change their licensing. Big deal.

    I personally like this aspect of the GPL becuase it really makes the software into a public good. At the same time, this underscores the importance of GPl 2.

  4. Frank says:

    Hi Ryan, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. GPL is designed to never allow the genie to be put back into the bottle (so to speak). A clever hack of the legal system if there ever was one.

    The GPL never specifically addresses the issue of relicensing (that I am aware of in my limited knowledge). It may be possible as long as the original rights afforded under GPL are never diminished (free to copy, distribute and modify the source). However I don’t see any reason a relicense would be necessary except to restrict these rights which is not in the spirit of the GPL and would infact violate it.

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