Coldfusion blog

Bob Saget and open source license compliance

One-time open source licenses amuse developers, but they create additional work for legal teams overseeing a company’s intellectual property.

Several of my open source friends had the same reaction when they learned of Bob Saget’s death. Sadly, the actor/comedian passed away last week at a relatively young age, and with it went an increment of open source license risk. Wait what?

Yes, it’s true. I was only vaguely aware of Saget when he was most famous as the father of the 1980s/90s sitcom Full house. At the time, I was too busy with my career and filling my own house to watch a lot of television. Her role on the popular series was pretty wholesome and a stark contrast to her pretty raunchy stand-up act. But its flame of fame reached a little extra sparkle in the open source world in 2012 with the release of QRToad.

About QRToad

QRToad is a ColdFusion interface for the itext library. ColdFusion is an Adobe web application development platform and itext is a library for processing PDF files. Who wouldn’t want such an interface? Developer Timothy Cunningham has successfully included licensing information with a readme file in the GitHub repository. He chose the MIT license for the code, but forbade the license to Bob Saget. The license reads as follows:

************************************************** **** *********************
****** Licensed by MIT – No Bob Saget Open Source License ****** *************** Copyright (c) 2012 Timothy Cunningham ****************
************************************************** **** *********************
Permission is granted, free of charge, to anyone (except Bob Saget) obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the “Software”), to process the Software without restriction, including, without limitation, rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense and/or sell copies of the Software, and permit persons to whom the Software is provided to do so, subject to the terms following: The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software. Under no circumstances shall Bob Saget be authorized to use such software, source code, documentation or other related material. Persons trading in the Software agree not to knowingly distribute these materials or any derivative works to Bob Saget.

THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED “AS IS” WITHOUT WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND COUNTERFEIT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS OR COPYRIGHT HOLDERS BE LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGE OR OTHER LIABILITY, WHETHER IN CONTRACT, TORT, OR OTHERWISE, ARISING OUT OF, OR IN CONNECTION WITH, THE SOFTWARE OR THE USE OR OTHER TRANSACTIONS IN THE SOFTWARE.
************************************************** ***************************************

Most likely, he had nothing against Bob Saget per se, just a quirky sense of humor. He presumably chose the popular culture name of the least susceptible person in the world to whom one would want to license the library. And so, Cunningham created a little fun time for other developers who might take advantage of the code. But it has also created a bit of a headache for lawyers dealing with their organization’s intellectual property. They now had to decide if they should make it a problem or live with the risk that somehow someone could send code to Bob Saget. A silver lining to Saget’s sad passing is that the risk is gone.

Other unique open source licenses

The QRToad license isn’t the only one where the grim subject of death is about risk assessment. Another example of a single, odd license is the Death and Repudiation License (look it up) which includes the following clause:

This software cannot be used directly by any living being. ANY use of this software (even perfectly legitimate and noncommercial) after death is expressly restricted. Any living being using (or attempting to use) this software will be punished to the full extent of the law.

Black Duck Knowledgebase™ includes thousands of licenses. A huge percentage of the world’s open source is covered by the top 10 or 20. And then there’s a long, long, long tail of unique pieces. Many, like the Death and Repudiation license, include a small twist on a standard license. Another example is the JSON license, which includes the clause “The software must be used for good, not evil”. The Apache Foundation removed all code under this license from its projects a few years ago. Most members of the open source community discourage developers from getting legally creative. It’s the right of the copyright holder to create whatever license they want, but there are plenty of standard licenses to fit all shapes and sizes.

Such frivolity in these licenses (and others, like the Beer License or the Chicken Dance License) is fun, but it does not encourage the use of his software. And that creates friction and extra work for lawyers. The best practice for developers is to stick with the most common licenses and let Bob rest in peace.

What lawyers need to know about open source license management |  Synopsis