Is it possible for a developer to lose rights to work on a self-created, open-source-licensed project after an outside company, developer, or organization copyrights (or takes some other legal action regarding) the same project?

I haven't heard of this happening, but it seems entirely possible that someone could independently develop a project and then have the rights to continue working on said project (or an idea/language/technology) taken away...

For example, when a project like Minecraft (but open-source-licensed, in this case,) is developed, and is later bought by a company like Microsoft, does this mean that Microsoft can say that Mojang (or Notch, for that matter,) no longer has rights to work on further Minecraft development?

Another example would be Oracle who bought the open-source MySQL database.

In other words, are copyrights still necessary for intellectual property alongside open source licensing?

closed as unclear what you're asking by amon, gnat, Bart van Ingen Schenau, Ixrec, user40980 Apr 24 '15 at 0:24

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    This is entirely within the realm of the contract law and legal advice. It should be a question asked of lawyers - programmers don't have the expertise to be able to give a correct and authorative answer. – user40980 Apr 23 '15 at 18:21
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    We still cannot give an authorative answer nor overview. There are many possible ways for the interplay of these two areas to play out. Patents, trademarks, copyright - all three are areas of intellectual property and different licenses do different things. Furthermore, your example of Mindcraft is not an open source product. – user40980 Apr 23 '15 at 18:31
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    I think this is objectively answerable. The crux of the question is the relationship between copyright (IP) and licensing. The FSF addresses these concerned in an essay that RMS wrote: How the Swedish Pirate Party Platform Backfires on Free Software. – user22815 Apr 23 '15 at 18:42
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    @MichaelT I think the difference here is the open-source nature. Any definition by OSI's standards will allow the use of the IP, whether copyright or patent. Mason Wheeler's answer mentions the specific reason why: promissory estoppel. Once the cat's out of the bag, you can't stuff it back in. Of course this is all in the general case, any question about a specific issue should go to an IP attorney. – user22815 Apr 23 '15 at 18:51
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    @curious: Do you realize that open source licenses are all copyright licenses? They only work because copyright exists on software. – Bart van Ingen Schenau Apr 23 '15 at 19:24

Minecraft is actually an invalid example, as it was a proprietary commercial project. If Microsoft purchases the IP rights to the project, and does not keep the Mojang developers on, then it's no different from any other proprietary project: you don't own the rights to what you work on, under "work made for hire" doctrine.

Having said that, for an actual open-source project, things are different. When source code is released under a license, the genie can't be put back into the bottle. There's a legal doctrine known as "promissory estoppel" which, in layman's terms, says that "but you promised!" is actually a valid legal argument, and so when someone publishes source code and says "here you go, community, use this as an open-source project," they can't take that back.

One of the most dramatic examples of this is the Firebird database. A long time ago, Borland decided to release the source code to their InterBase RDBMS, but then, for whatever reason, they quickly had a change of heart. But because the code had already been published, they couldn't take that back, and a development community continued to work on the InterBase source under the new name "Firebird". Today, Firebird and InterBase are two similar but distinct products, both still under active development, one by the open-source community and the other as a commercial project run by Embarcadero, who bought the rights from Borland.

(Standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. This is just stuff I've picked up based on common sense and experience.)

  • @Snowman: Doesn't the Interbase/Firebird example I gave demonstrate exactly that point? I meant for it to. The open-source community even had to stop calling it "InterBase," but Borland couldn't keep them from continuing to develop it under a new name. – Mason Wheeler Apr 23 '15 at 18:43
  • You are right, reading comprehension is not my forte today. – user22815 Apr 23 '15 at 18:45
  • It all depends on the license. If my license says "you may use this code for three years, that is up to and including April 23rd, 2018", then after that date you have no rights to the software. – gnasher729 Apr 23 '15 at 22:25
  • @gnasher729: But then it would not be an open-source license as recognized by the OSI, or a free software license as recognized by the FSF. (Which are basically the same thing, once you factor out the different ideological slants.) – Mason Wheeler Apr 24 '15 at 0:21
  • Are you sure it's promissory estoppel guaranteeing this, and not the fact that open-source licenses are all explicitly either entirely irrevocable or irrevocable unless you do something they specifically ban? – cpast May 3 '15 at 2:46

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