Intellectual Property and Open Source Software: Issues and Concerns

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  • 0:05 Intellectual Property
  • 2:02 Copyrights, Patents,…
  • 3:55 Patents Versus Copyrights
  • 6:15 Open Source:…
  • 11:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jill Heaney

Jill has taught college-level business and IT. She has a Doctorate in Business Administration and an M.S. in Information Technology & Leadership.

One of the defining issues of the Internet era is intellectual property rights. The Internet has made it easy to access digital media and illegally copy it. This lesson will discuss intellectual property including protections through copyrights, trademarks and patents. We will also explore the open source movement and the growing trend toward free, unprotected software.

Intellectual Property

One of the defining issues of the Internet era is intellectual property rights. Who should have ownership rights and control over digitized information? Who should be able to determine the availability and access of that information? Those are some of the questions concerning intellectual property often debated.

The ease of accessing information through the Internet has caused serious concern about protecting intellectual property, including music, movies, digital books, software, and video games. Theft of intellectual property has been an ongoing problem. Software piracy is the illegal copying of copyrighted software. It has become a global problem. Piracy of music, movies, and books is also a growing problem. Millions of people copy songs, digital books, or movies onto their computer or their iPod illegally. They download the media they want for free from a peer-to-peer file sharing website like BitTorrent. This process denies the original artists, authors, or entrepreneurs the legitimate compensation they deserve for their work.

Let's consider the following scenario. Arthur is a very talented software designer. He has created a variety of programs used in homes and businesses around the globe. As a successful software developer, he is concerned with protecting his intellectual property rights. So, what is intellectual property? Intellectual property refers to the intangible or non-physical right that is the result of original thought, such as musical, literary, or artistic works. Owners of intellectual property are granted exclusive rights through copyrights, trademarks, and patents. An exclusive right is a right reserved solely by a particular person or group.

Copyrights, Patents and Trademarks

Machines and product formulas can be eligible for patents.
Patent Examples

Arthur copyrights and patents every program he develops to protect his rights. Copyright laws give authors the exclusive rights to their work, including the right to make copies. The copyright will last for Arthur's lifetime plus 70 years. A copyright protects literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, architectural, audio, and audiovisual works from unauthorized reproduction.

Patents are government grants that entitle the inventor to exclusive rights and prevent others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention. Patents protect physical objects, such as product inventions or machines as well as inventive processes for producing a physical product. Arthur's patent is good for a period of 20 years from the filing date of the patent application. A patent will give Arthur the right to prevent anyone from using, creating, or selling his software or proprietary processes that fall under the terms of the patent.

A trademark consists of a distinctive word, phrase, or symbol that identifies a product or service. Names, like Pepsi, or symbols, like the Nike swoosh, are considered trademarks. Arthur has a unique symbol to represent his company that he uses for marketing and on all products associated with his business. He can acquire a trademark on this symbol because it is unique and he is the first to use it publicly. He will register this symbol with the U.S. Patent Office. He must be careful, though; trademarks can be lost if one squanders them through excessive or improper licensing or if they become generic and thereby enter the public domain.

The Pepsi name and the Nike swoosh are trademarked.
Trademark Examples

Patents vs. Copyrights

A software patent is a very powerful protection to have. Patents are harder to obtain and do not last as long as copyrights, but they are important for software developers. Patents can protect features of a program that are not protected under copyright laws. If one of Arthur's programs uses an algorithm, or a step-by-step procedure for solving a specific problem, that is new, useful, and non-obvious, he needs a patent to protect it. Therefore, no one else would be able to use Arthur's algorithm in their computer program without being guilty of infringement.

Copyrights offer the most basic protection for software. A copyright gives Arthur the right to make and distribute copies of his programs. This is one of the strongest weapons against software piracy. Copyright laws give owners, like Arthur, the ability to prevent others from making copies as well as from creating or selling works that are very similar to the copyrighted work. The weakness of copyright laws is that they do not offer protection to the ideas underlying the program. Ideas and concepts could be used by competitors when they are not protected by patents.

Arthur's software is considered a form of intellectual property that can be protected by a patent or copyright. It is somewhat different from other forms of intellectual property because it doesn't fit nicely into either legal framework. The source code of the software is a literary creation which would best fit under copyright protection. Source code is the written instruction of a computer program that is processed by the computer.

However, software is also functional, which makes it incompatible with copyright laws. Software is a physical object that would make it fitting for protection under patent laws. However, as an expressive literary work, it doesn't neatly fit under the patent category either. Some argue that given its unusual nature, software should not be eligible for strong copyright or patent protection. Some believe software should be free and that ownership is obstructive and counterproductive. This thinking has paved the way for the open source movement, which is gaining momentum.

Open Source: Definition, Pros and Cons, Examples

Open source means the software is distributed for free with accessible source code that can be modified and improved by anyone. The open source movement is comprised of both formal and informal groups of individuals who support the use of open source licenses for software. One formal organization is called the Open Source Initiative (OSI), founded in 1998. The OSI is a non-profit, global corporation that educates and advocates for the benefits of open source. They are actively involved in the open source community and promote awareness of the importance of non-proprietary software. Proponents of open source code believe it will lead to the development of better software code, fewer bugs, and more features.

Have you ever used open source software? You may have and not even realized it. A few of the more well-known open source programs are:

  • GIMP is used for photo editing. It rivals Photoshop.
  • Mozilla Firefox is used for web browsing. It rivals web browsers like Internet Explorer.
  • OpenOffice is a productivity suite containing programs for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases, and more. It rivals Microsoft Office programs.
  • Moodle is a course management system used in online education to hold virtual classes. It rivals eCollege, Blackboard, and ANGEL, among others.

GIMP, OpenOffice, and Mozilla Firefox are open source programs.
Open Source Programs

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