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Re: Is this Public Domain? And is it DFSG-free?

Scripsit Pontus Lidman <pontus@lysator.liu.se>

> I'm looking at a network analysis tool called 'pchar', which has the
> following license:
> This work was first produced by an employee of Sandia National
> Laboratories under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.
> Sandia National Laboratories dedicates whatever right, title or
> interest it may have in this software to the public. Although no
> license from Sandia is needed to copy and use this software, copying
> and using the software might infringe the rights of others. This
> software is provided as-is. SANDIA DISCLAIMS ANY WARRANTY OF ANY KIND,
> What bothers me is the sentence "Although no license from Sandia is needed
> to copy and use this software, copying and using the software might
> infringe the rights of others". The author himself doesn't see any
> problems, as he has placed pchar in the public domain, which is less
> restrictive than, e.g., GPL.
> As I understand it, the author (or Sandia, depending on which kind of 
> agreement he has with them) still retains copyright to the software even
> though he released it to the public domain. Is this correct?

The situation seems pretty clear to me. As employer of the author, Sandia
owned the copyright to what he wrote, but not wanting to exploit these rights
in any way, they decided to give those rights to the public; this means that
nobody now owns those rights, and the contribution is effectively free of
copyright. So no, neither the author nor Sandia retains copyright to the

However, as Sandia does not wish to be bothered in any way about this
software, they added a clause that frees them from any claim that they may
have been giving away rights they did not own: just in case the software would
contain anything on which somebody else has copyright, Sandia would leave
those intact (as obviously they must). The language is that of pure prudence;
they clearly did not want to verify whether their employee had maybe used
material copyrighted by others. Which means they leave the burden of
verification to whoever wants to further distribute the software.

The fact that the author himself has placed pchar in the public domain seems
to indicate that he does not think to be violating anybody else's copyright.
To be on the safe side, it would do no harm to ask him explicitly (if he can
be located), and of course to check for any copyright notices in the code.
Supposing no rights turn up this way, one may claim having done what is
reasonable to detect any dormant rights, and henceforth consider the software
as being entirely in the public domain. For future redistributors it might be
kind to include a note indicating the evidence gathered for the
non-copyrighted status, so that the effort need not be duplicated later.

> To sum it up:
> 1) Is the license DFSG-free as it stands?

Non-copyrighted (public domain) material cannot have (and does not need) a

> 2) Can the author re-distribute his software under, e.g., the BSD license
>    now, despite having released it with the above license?

No. The copyrights having been given away (or annihilated), they cannot be
reclaimed by the author or anybody else. It also means anybody can reuse any
material in any way they like and claim to have unshared copyrights to the
resulting work (this is where GPL-ed work differs most notably from work in
the public domain); strictly speaking this applies only to the parts that are
(in the terms of US law) "original works of authorship" produced by that
person. Doing so would not however affect the original version in any way.

Marc van Leeuwen
Universite de Poitiers

      A ''useful article'' is a vessel hull, including a plug or 
      mold, which in normal use has an intrinsic utilitarian function 
      that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to 
      convey information. An article which normally is part of a 
      useful article shall be deemed to be a useful article. 

U.S. Code Title 17 [Copyrights] Chapter 13 [Protection of original designs]
Section 1301. [Designs protected] (b) [Definitions] (2).
See <URL:http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/1301.html> and

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