A Strange Week in the Copyright World

Last week two interesting things happened in the realm of copyright. First the owner of the copyright of a particular piece of Free software advised the world that he was withdrawing that software from the GPL; he instructed people to delete any copies they have and remove the code from any systems that might have incorporated it.

I've wondered when we would see this particular event occur, since I recall the copyright laws being somewhat vague about this sort of thing. The problem is the owner of the copyright already gave people permission to use the source code under the terms of the GPL, which does not allow for revoking the license. The issue will need to be decided by a court which will determine whether a "gift" can be "ungiven". Some comments on Slashdot suggest that there may be something else at play here; such as a legal restriction which prevents the owner of the copyright from distributing the code under the GPL, and which would render the GPL invalid for this code. However the author did not indicate this and it remains to be seen what will happen.

The other odd thing that happened was that a US judge found that a cease-and-desist letter is copyrightable. That means that if a lawyer wants to bully you into doing something, and you want to tell the world that you are being bullied, you are not allowed to post a copy of the cease and desist letter on your website. In theory this would mean that you're not even allowed to make photocopies of the letter to pass around to your staff (assuming you have staff).

Frankly this is a frightening ruling. A cease and desist letter is clearly not a work of art, but rather a simple communication. The only effect that can be had from suppressing the publication of such a letter is that more lawyers will be able to bully people into getting in line with their clients' wishes. This is often what happens when someone's activities are embarrassing to a corporation. Suppressing this kind of speech can only have a chilling effect on freedom.

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