Copyright question (and no answer yet)

In the past two years, more and more SharePoint blogs have started sharing snippets of code. Some feature innovative ideas, and maybe you’ve wanted to apply them on your own sites. But did you first check if you’re allowed to do so?

Original content published on the internet is protected by copyright laws. It means that you cannot reuse it without the author’s consent. To be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to this when I started a blog in 2008. It occured to me when I started reusing scripts from others, for example jQuery plugins. I was also alerted last year when Paul Grenier at endusersharepoint.com started including copyright notices. I contacted him, and he confirmed that his purpose was to give readers the freedom to reuse his scripts.

What does all of this have to do with you? Well, as it turns out, I have never precised under which conditions the content of my blog can be reused. I am not the only one btw, most of us bloggers are amateur publishers and started writing without being aware of the legal whereabouts. It may not have been an issue in the past, when code was limited to short snippets showing how to hide a button or change a background color. But today some scripts – like the Easy Tabs for example – are full blown solutions.

One of my top priorities today is to take the steps to clarify what readers can do with my content. I plan to include a copyright notice in my original scripts, and I need to choose a license or two under which I’ll make my work available. I have defined a few objectives:
1/ Make sure that end users can freely and legally use in their organizations the scripts I publish, without having to ask me first.
2/ Protect myself, so that I am not liable for any misuse of my scripts.
3/ keep some control on how my content is republished, or reused in other scripts.

How to do this in practice? Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, the best is to leverage an existing license. However, there’s a bunch of them out there, so the choice is not easy. The MIT license is very open, so it seems like the right choice. But I don’t want to rush, and I’ll take the time to make an informed decision.

For the record, here are a few other important concepts associated with copyright.

Derivative work

Copyright extends to derivative work: works based or derived from copyrighted work require permission from the owner of the original work. So for example, my copyright would apply to a method that uses calculated columns to write HTML.

Fair use

The law allows “fair use” of copyrighted work. On the internet, it often means copying a short excerpt and linking to the original work.

I’ll add to this another principle, not derived from copyright but from collaborative systems: keep only one version of the truth. As a consultant, I am a strong defender of this principle – and this is actually one of the strengths of SharePoint: allowing the reuse of the same content in different views.
An issue I have been confronted with, for example, is that some people copied the content of my original post, “using calculated columns to write HTML”. 18 months later, the copies are still around, haven’t been updated and are not helpful anymore.

Obviously all of this is fairly new to me, so advice is welcome!

Additional reading: 10 Big Myths about copyright explained

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5 thoughts on “Copyright question (and no answer yet)

  1. Great article and very true a mine field but by publishing our thoughts/work should that not be open to the the entire SharePoint community to reuse as they see fit? Only my thoughts Dave

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dave. How would you justify your position?
      Let me play the devil’s advocate and list a few reasons why this is not a good idea:
      – if as the author I decide to make my content available for free, I’d like to make sure people who reuse it keep the original spirit and don’t try to monetize it. This is where copyright comes into play (known as “copyleft” in this case).
      – tons of duplicates would be created by people who just care about generating traffic. This would create a wall between the readers and the author (of course, don’t expect these people to link back to the original article). The readers would post questions or comments on these fakes without getting any response.
      – from experience, even if people’s intentions are good, they won’t follow up and update their post to match updates made on the original article. A classical scenario also seen in file shares and mailboxes, with multiple versions of the truth.

      I am not making this up, this really happened to me and other bloggers like Mark Miller or Peter Allen. For example, search the Web for “sharepoint theTDs” and you’ll find many copies of my Text to HTML script. How many show or point to the last version?

      I am not questioning the “reuse” part of your comment, but the “as they see fit” part. The WWW works the same as a SharePoint farm. No governance leads to chaos.

  2. Pingback: Easy Tabs Lite, version 4.0 beta « Path to SharePoint

    • Hi Ryan!

      I have decided to release most of my scripts under the MIT license, which basically means free to reuse with attribution. Some of the latest versions can be found in my SharePoint User’s Toolkit with the license terms:
      http://www.pathtosharepoint.com/sharepoint-user-toolkit

      My preferred way in forums is still to link to the original post. This way the reader gets not only the script, but also comments and later enhancements or bug fixes.

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