[LRUG] Freelancing, Licensing and ownership of code

Eleanor McHugh eleanor at games-with-brains.com
Tue Mar 17 07:34:29 PDT 2009

On 17 Mar 2009, at 13:27, Rob Lacey wrote:
> Hey....
> I've come across a problem I hope some guys can maybe clarify the  
> legality of something on or perhaps create some discussion. I'm  
> looking at a potential client's codebase I can see the previous  
> developer has put a licence in the code.
> "This application is copyright © 2005-2008 by Developer's Name (developers at email.com 
> ), All Rights Reserved.
> It has been developed for, and licensed to, the Client Name.
> The terms of the license are simple.
> The Client Name has a permanent license to use and modify the  
> software as they so wish, with one exception - they may not  
> distribute, or cause to be distributed, the software, or any  
> derivative works, without the express written permission of the  
> developer, Developer's Name."
> It makes me wonder if this is even valid. Or if I should be putting  
> an ammendment to this licence adding my name in any changes I apply  
> to the codebase.
> I see this from two points of view, if as a developer if I created a  
> plugin why shouldn't I re-use it in subsequent projects rather then  
> rewrite it everytime at the expense of the client if it makes my  
> life easier and the project goals quicker to achieve. On the other  
> hand if my employer has invested their money in my time then really  
> shouldn't the code belong to them and they should be able to re-use  
> it, distribute it as much as they like. On yet another hand my  
> plugin that I spent months building in my own free time, if I then  
> use it in a client's project I wouldn't like that to become freely  
> available to them and then used by subsequent developers without my  
> permission.
> Tis a tangled web, what's the answer? Who owns what, when, where,  
> how? Tizer :)

Intellectual Property is always a tangled web and you'd need legal  
advice on the specific circumstances, however http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_law_of_the_United_Kingdom 
  is a good first introduction if you want to dig further into this.

With regard to this particular instance, and bearing in mind that I'm  
not a lawyer so the following is pure speculation, if the original  
developer was a contractor/freelancer as opposed to an employee of  
your client then they own the copyright of the code in question and  
can restrict it however they like within the limit of their rights at  
law. Obviously rights of fair dealing would still apply.

As a general rule, if you write software for a third-party and you are  
not employed by them then the copyright to that software belongs to  
you. Even if you are employed the copyright still belongs to you  
unless it is written in the course of your employment or you have an  
explicit contract term ceding the appropriate intellectual property  
rights to your employer.

This means that if as a freelancer or contractor you're writing  
software for clients then it is likely that the software belongs to  
you and not them unless a contract exists which transfers your rights  
to them. That is regardless of whether or not you include a license  
term in the codebase: the fact you wrote the software is sufficient to  
establish your rights and any such explicit statements are nothing  
more than supporting evidence of that fact.


Eleanor McHugh
Games With Brains
raise ArgumentError unless @reality.responds_to? :reason

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