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Workshop: Legal aspects of free and open source software 
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the origin of the code, that is to say, to preserve the statement that claims authorship of 
the code in all subsequent distribution even of modified versions of it. This practice was not 
unlike the practice of citations in scientific works – which software was considered to be. It 
was commonplace to have these conditions spelled out in a text that accompanied the 
software distribution, or “the license”. Universities used a standardized form of this license, 
which usually took the name of the University itself. The most known and used licenses 
were those coming from Berkeley (“BSD” = Berkeley Software Distribution) and from the 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“MIT”). 
This form of Free Software distribution is therefore often referred to as “Academic 
licensing”, or “Attribution only”. 
1.2 
Enter the Independent software vendors 
Military, academic and hardware industry did not rely on any particular form of protection 
for the software that they made. Military simply did not distribute it. For the hardware 
industry software, it was just a necessary complement to their main product and there was 
little incentive to copy software that had to be drastically changed in order to run on other 
hardware. Academics freely distributed their software; their main concern was avoiding 
plagiarism and being acknowledged for the quality of what they wrote: they were seeking 
recognition. 
But increasingly over the time software became  disentangled  from  the  hardware  that  it 
targeted. The operating system Unix
42
 was an important part of this process, as it had a 
kernel that was designed to run the basic interaction with the hardware and a “user space” 
where applications could run and – to a large extent – be independent from the underlying 
hardware. This was also due to a fundamental advancement in the software programming 
techniques, with the creation of the C programming language by Dennis Ritchie,
43
 to which 
Unix was ported as early as 1972.
44
 
Thanks to these advancements – as well as to more performing hardware at lower prices 
where the overhead necessary to this abstraction of software from the hardware could be 
accommodated – industry specialization increased, and manufacturers that were 
concentrating only on software making were a natural evolution. This was the Independent 
Software Vendors (ISV) industry. 
With independence and abstraction, as well as complexity and value of software, came the 
need to “protect” the investment in producing good software and to avoid that others 
(including the hardware makers who contracted out software to ISVs) could have a free run 
on this work. This protection was conceivably obtained through three different tools:  

 
secrecy; 

 
hardware keys or other form of technical protection

 
legal protection. 
Hardware keys are not relevant to our discussion. It is a form of encryption of software that 
needs a hardware device of sort to run, so that copying the software is useless if the 
hardware device is not also obtained. 
Secrecy and legal protection are far more relevant, and will be discussed in the next 
chapter. 
                                                 
42 UNIX is an alteration of the acronym UNICS, or UNiplexed Information and Computing Service. Hereinafter the 
common uncapitalized form “Unix” will be used. Unix is an operating system, that is, the part of a computer's 
software that provides the most basic functions used by more specialized software applications, roughly speaking 
taking care of the interactions with the hardware. For instance, an operating system checks the hardware 
environment, manages storage devices, collects the inputs of the user and provides the output to the user (e.g., 
through a monitor), connects with other computers through network interfaces, recognizes and manages devices, 
authenticates users and allows them to perform their permitted actions, etcetera. 
43
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C_%28programming_language%29
  
44 See 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix#1970s.
  For  a  more  detailed  recount  of  why  UNIX  is  relevant  to  Free 
Software, see Meeker H.J., The Open Source Alternative, Wiley, New Jersey, USA, pp. 4-5 


Policy Department C: Citizens' Rights and Constitutional Affairs 
____________________________________________________________________________________________ 
 
34
1.3 
Source code, machine code and reverse engineering 
The “traditional” way of making software, the paradigm of which can be seen in the C 
programming, is that the programmer uses some sort of programming language which, to 
an uneducated eye, would look like a mixture of English and mathematics notations, which 
is called “source code”. Source code is “human readable” code, in other words, an expert 
human being is able to read it and tell what the code is supposed to do. But this code 
cannot be used by computers, because the instructions that a computer needs are really 
much different, as computer need instructions in “machine code” or “executable form”. 
The translation of source code into machine code is called “compilation” and the 
application that makes this machine code is called “compiler”.  
Machine code, unlike source code, would look like a series of hexadecimal characters (from 
0 to 9 and from a to f) without an apparent structure or meaning. Machine code is not 
human-readable. In other words, it is completely opaque to the human being, but it is 
not so to a computer.  
Therefore the ISV found it natural not to distribute the source code, so that any 
modification would need their intervention, or access to source code. Possession of source 
code in the common parlance is a proxy for “ownership” of the code, although legally 
speaking this is not true. In this way, ISV relied on secrecy to preserve their commercial 
power.  
It is technically possible to obtain a close equivalent of the source code through reverse 
engineering  techniques that are referred to as “decompilation” (the opposite of 
“compilation”). This practice was quite early considered illegal, a form of industrial 
espionage. Therefore secrecy also provides some sort of legal protection. 
This way of protection (that is, hardware protection) cannot do anything against a one-to-
one copy, i.e., against making an identical copy of the machine code that would run on an 
identical or compatible computer. With increasingly lower cost of copying, that practice 
became  very  convenient  and  ISVs  felt  they  needed some protection against it. Leaving 
aside hardware protection or other technical anti-copying means, the only way was to have 
legal protection. 
1.4 
Legal protection: copyright 
The initial debate as to what form of legal protection was to be given to software, if any, 
converged very soon and naturally towards copyright, both due to the nature of software 
(which is originally a work of writing) and to the need to protect it mainly against copying 
rather than against imitating. Another advantage of using copyright as a legal device to 
protect software was that copyright is universally protected under the Berne Convention 
that establishes a world-wide Copyright Union within which a copyrighted subject is 
uniformly and automatically protected by all the member states of the union. 
The other options, such as using patents or some sort of sui generis rights, were 
considered impractical. In Europe, protection of software as a copyright subject was 
eventually harmonized through the Software Directive.
45
 
1.5  The rise of proprietary and the re-birth of Free Software, 
thanks to a printer 
ISVs could therefore benefit from a sound legal and technical environment. The 
commoditization of the PC platform made the software industry as relevant – if not more 
relevant - as the hardware industry. Software became a tradable object, a commercial 
product that, thanks to the protections granted to it, was made artificially scarce and 
therefore could have a price tag. Software and all copies thereof became a property that 
could be sold. Thus the name “proprietary”,  which  is  used  to  define  software  protected 
and treated as property. 
                                                 
45 Directive 91/250/EEC, 
http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31991L0250:EN:HTML
  



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