Ask the Expert

GPL and international business

Would a company's expansion into foreign countries mean its IT/managerial teams would have to re-shape the company's open-source software use policy, or to adjust it to the new countries' legal/commercial environment?

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When it comes to a company's use of OSS, I can't see any problems in day-to-day use so long as you observe the licenses.

Foreign governments are generally quite supportive of OSS, and so I can't see how their doing anything that would provide obstacles for it.

The one caution I would suggest has to do with the author's or artist's moral rights (distinct from copyright) in a composition, that is the right to be recognized as the creator of a work, and the right to protect the integrity of the work, and sometimes to withdraw the work from distribution or public gaze. Laws on moral rights vary from country to country, and some jurisdictions hold that moral rights cannot be waived.

In the United States moral rights are recognized to some extent for visual art works, but not at all when it comes to software source code. And even places that are the home of moral rights like France and Germany temper the law to accommodate software, particularly with regard to modifying it.

Some Open Source licenses require that the author's name be preserved when the work is distributed, whether in original or altered form. The Sun Contributor Agreement (SCA), on the other hand, is wary enough of moral rights claims that it requires software contributors to agree not to enforce their moral rights in the software they contribute.

When it comes to foreign countries, where moral rights tend to have more standing in court than in the U.S., you would be wise to have any software contributors expressly disclaim in writing their moral rights in the contributed software.

As a side note, you should be aware that some overseas translators of documentation may have moral rights in their translations, even if you have purchased the copyright from them.

I cannot think of a case in which a foreign court has trampled on an OSS license, and we have at least one case of a German court enforcing the GNU GPL.

For more information on international intellectual property rights, click here.

This was first published in June 2008

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