Poll: Should software from defunct companies be Public Domain?

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  1. #1
    Converged all over the place
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    When does software become public domain?

    At what point after a business closes does its product line become public domain? If a software company goes out of business--not just bought out, but shuts down entirely--and its product line is no longer supported, does not that product line become public domain? If no one is around to exercise copywrite or license, then is not that license invalid?
    I understand if one company is bought by another, their product line is usually included in the deal and licenses transfer to the new company, unless it is otherwise specified in the language of the contract.
    I know that almost all software written for the Apple II, for example, is now in the public domain and available for download for free. So, should not programs written by a company like IOBOX, who ceased to exist in 2004, also be public domain?
    Or, just for discussions sake, do the rights transfer back to the original individual programmer?
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  2. #2
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    When does software become public domain?

    I bet this is a very well understood concept but I'm not an attorney.

    If the original "owner" is a corporation, then that corporation is an entity just like a person. The death of a corp I would guess is treated the same as the death of a person. The right (which is simply part of the corp's assets) go to particular entities (people and other corporations) such as the stock holders and creditors. Those entities may or may not excercise their rights -- but that doesn't really change much.
    Thank you,
    pedz

  3. #3
    Use the search button!! elkay's Avatar
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    I can't speak for other companies, but I myself am a developer, and if I decided to close shop I would give the decency of announcing my products as being released to the public domain. I'd also most likely release my source code where doing so would not jeopardize the integrity of the application. There are circumstances where this doesn't happen for one reason or another. One example is WeatherPanel. Martian just disappeared one day and was never seen again. Was it intentional, or perhaps was he a one man shop and some catastrophic event happened (i.e. death). Yet the app still works. The support website itself only recently went rogue. I believe you can still purchase the application through retail channels however. Now where does that app fall in the scheme of things? Altogether, this is a touchy subject.
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  4. #4
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    @pedz

    I understand your point. What if a private corproation (no stockholders) dissolves, goes out of business, with no creditors. The corporation is gone. I wonder what happens then?

  5. #5
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    If the company goes bankrupt, it seems only fair that all its remaining assets (including copyrights) should go to the creditors.

    If they simply go out of business, it seems that somehow they need to disposition their assets (sort of like a will), and software copyrights are among these.

    I don't know how it works legally, but that is what makes sense to me.

  6. #6
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    Our current copyright laws are hopelessly broken, and are actively destructive to their constitutional mandate of encouraging progress. The only people who win under the current system are lawyers, precisely because just about everything is nearly assured of falling into ambiguous or unknown ownership after its commercial value has diminished below the transaction costs of trying to research ownership under the current system, but LONG before its ~150-year term expires.

    Just to give one example, copyright mess is one reason why no commercial Colecovision retro-system has ever been made. When Coleco went bankrupt in the mid-80s, it was one of the messiest bankruptcies in corporate history because it was a family-owned company whose owner did some stuff that was of questionable legality in a desperate effort to save the company during its last days (not necessarily fraudulent, malicious, or immoral... just "not allowed", precisely because it usually creates a tangled legal mess like the one that happened in this case). So now, ~20 years later, most of Coleco's IP has no obvious owner, and won't until/unless someone spends millions of dollars and several years filing lawsuits to do the equivalent of a real estate "quiet title" suit. Complicating things further, most of the licensed games (Zaxxon, Smurfs, etc) were licensed under terms that wouldn't necessarily allow their distribution in other forms or use under emulation, or had time limits that have long since expired.

    The reforms I'd like to see:

    All works are automatically protected by copyright for one year from the date of creation. Possession of a digitally-notarized copy timestamped more than 12 months before the date of first alleged infringement is prima-facie evidence of non-infringement unless a formal copyright is filed.

    A formal copyright costs $10 for the first 10 years, plus processing costs based upon actual costs incurred by the copyright office. In other words, someone who submits the required form electronically and furnishes an archival-quality copy in digital form (with official formats having defined minimum quality requirements, like XML for text, jpeg for images, Ogg Vorbis for audio, MPEG-2 or VC-1 for film or video, etc) might pay $10 per submitted optical disc (regardless of how many individual works with accompanying registration forms were on it).

    Copyright can be repeatedly renewed, without limit, for an additional 10 years during its final year, or during the year following its lapse, for an amount equal to double the fee paid for the current decade. So Disney is happy, but even THEY might question whether it's worth paying $10.4 million to renew Steamboat Willie's copyright for another decade in 2420. Decades can not be paid in advance (someone HAS to actively renew during the final year or 12 months thereafter). If copyright lapses, but gets renewed during the grace period, any use during the lapse, and for 18 months thereafter, is subject to compulsory licensing.

    Clear safe-harbor provisions exist so that someone who follows the rules and makes a good-faith effort to identify the owner of a copyrighted work can, at worst, be subjected to payment of royalties under compulsory licensing terms that are based on net revenue (so someone giving away copies would be subject to royalty payments of x% of zero). The same applies to situations where the official owner of record is not the current owner, or has incorrect contact information (all records are normalized in the database, so updating an owner's contact info in one record automatically updates the contact info for all copyrights owned by him). If someone who WAS the owner, but no longer IS the owner, enters into a licensing agreement, the licensee is protected from liability, and the licensor has to sue the invalid licensor for fraud. The legitimate owner would have the right to have the fraudulent licensing agreement invalidated, and at worst subject the licensee to compulsory licensing terms for 18 months.

    The copyright office itself would enable people (for nominal fees) to search its database against a sample of a work to find its owner. For example, printed matter would be searched the same way college professors use some service to compare submitted term papers to others in a database to catch reused/sold papers. Image recognition (where you can look for similar images) already exists in some picture-viewing apps. The expectation is that the copyright office itself would eventually make available a royalty-free watermarking system that could be used to expedite lookups (and further reinforce a copyright against defenses of obscurity).

    The copyright office would be authorized (and required) to publish all works once their copyright has irrevocably expired (18 months after formal expiration). In this case, "Publish" means "make available for bulk purchase on open, transparent pricing terms to all interested purchasers for a reasonable period of time". For example, it might charge $1,000 to purchase a crate of optical discs burned with every work whose copyright expired 78 weeks ago. It would be up to the purchaser to figure out what's on them based upon the included registration forms, and decide what to do with them from that point. The purchaser could sell copies of the discs outright for any fee (they're public domain, after all), or could create his own compilations to sell.

    As for the compilations themselves, the works contained on them would be 100% public domain... but compilers could still achieve a bit of protection by including one or more copyrighted files on each disc. So... someone who tried selling verbatim copies of a commercial compilation (or using its label art) could still be sued for infringement based on the one or more proprietary files contained on it, but someone who deleted all of the proprietary files, and distributed the disc without any obvious visible resemblance to the original would be safe. In other words, someone who wanted to sell a remastered compilation WOULD have to do substantial work of his or her own to ensure that all of the copyrighted files were removed, by searching the copyright database for each file included on the new compilation. I think that strikes a fair balance between protecting the aggregator's work and ensuring that public domain works don't become subject to de-facto copyright all over again.

    A similar rule would apply to anthologies containing works that have fallen into the public domain. It would be infringement to reproduce the entire anthology, or any commentary, footnotes, or other value-added metadata specific to the anthology, but the source work itself would fall out of copyright right on schedule if it were not renewed.

    Foreign copyrights would be recognized under the automatic "1 year" protection, but would require American registration for protection in America beyond that. The door WOULD be open for the US, by treaty, to encourage other countries to establish a similar system that would be mutually shared and automatically extend their copyright protection to America as well. Any such treaty would have to require similar requirements (periodic renewal at doubling fees, submission of content in digital form with metadata, and safe harbor provisions comparable to American oneswould be non-negotiable requirements of any such treaty. Otherwise, companies would just pick a country under the treaty with cheaper/less stringent requirements and copyright everything there instead).

    The main goals:

    * Remove as many lawyers from the equation as possible, especially on the "licensee" side.

    * Make it easy for good-faith potential licensees to identify copyrighted works and contact their owners.

    * Ensure that works remain copyrighted ONLY as long as someone is actively interested in keeping them copyrighted, and that works whose own owners don't even realize they own them quickly fall out of copyright.
    Last edited by miamicanes; 04-24-2007 at 10:47 AM.

  7. #7
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    Rights remain with the holder or their successors until they (the rights that is) expire, or the holder releases them.

    Seems simple to me. But then, I have generated copyrighted material so I'm "the man."

  8. #8
    ... He saw ppc6700 & said, "good!" kelvin3's Avatar
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    I feel your pain, but...

    sorry haven't read through all the replies yet so I may be duping someone...

    The programmer should retain the rights. It's their blood, sweat and tears that brought it to pass. Now if they want to open source it after the company folds, then by all means!

    Somebody pass the Jolt! hey! watch out! Programmer coming through here!

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