I’ve drawn up a list of my intellectual property yesterday. It’s about four pages long and contains libraries, applications, web apps, training material, etc. Only one thing that I’ve ever created and published is in the public domain – the rest has copyrights attached to it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t use it, or even that you have to pay me to be allowed to use it: it just means that it’s mine and that I decide what kind of rights you have over it.
That may seem selfish. After all, isn’t software supposed to be free? Aren’t we supposed to open the source and just give it all away? The short answer is no, it isn’t and no, we’re not. Even the Linux kernel, which is free/libre open source software and probably one of the most successful large-scale FLOSS projects in the world, is not given away. Software is free as in speech, not free as in beer. What you give away is the right to use it under certain conditions, to play with it and make modifications to it. You don’t give away ownership of it.
I wrote up the list of my intellectual property to limit an agreement that I am about to sign that signs over certain intellectual property rights to work I am in the process of doing, or will be doing during the next few months. I am being paid for that work, and the intellectual property rights to that work will belong, within the limits required by law, to the person that pays be for it (person, in this case, in the legal sense of the term: a corporation is an person). Such agreements tend to be written a bit “loosely”: they tend to cast a wide net so as to not let anything slip that might be theirs. Well, I happen to continue working on my intellectual property during the same general time period as I also work on theirs – just not at the same location, using the same material etc. so I need to create a sort of legal bubble around my intellectual property, so the net they cast doesn’t catch it as well as their own property.
The success of free software depends on the rights of its authors being protected: it is the author’s choice to publish their intellectual property and to give their users certain rights while retaining all other rights on their work. If authors don’t protect their intellectual property and start to “give away” their work, copyright infringements will eventually kill free software. I.e., if I had signed the agreement I would have been unable to work on my IP for the next few months (and keep the IP, legally). Though I don’t think they would have actually made any fuss about it, they agreed that I should be “very cautious” about guarding my IP – and I would tend to advise the same to anyone else.