Licensing Code Fragments in Your Blog – It Really Does Matter

I help some big companies stay on top of Open Source compliance. Last week, a customer found a code fragment that had originated in a blog, in the documentation-writing product of a very big software company that is concerned with documents and graphics. The file was meant to be re-distributed with documents my customer produced. The entirety of the blog was licensed underCreative Commons Attribution Share-Alike. The big software company’s code wasn’t under any sort of share-alike license, and thus they were probably infringing on the blog author, and my customer was at risk of being a contributory infringer when it re-distributed this file.

We contacted the help desk of the big software company, and they might get back to us someday. Before getting louder with them, I contacted the blogger.

Bloggers have placed their work under Attribution Share-Alike and other restrictive licenses to prevent their work from being cloned improperly by unscrupulous people on the net, mostly search-engine-optimization scams. The Attribution Share-Alike license requires proper attribution of the author, and sharing of modifications under the same terms as the original. But like many of us, this blogger put code fragments in his writing, and intended for his readers to use them. CC Attribution Share-Alike isn’t the right license for that purpose. It’s not compatible with proprietary code, nor is it compatible with other share-alike licenses like the GPL.

The blogger admitted that it was tempting to get the big software company to take a look at its own compliance issues, but then graciously agreed to change his blog’s licensing. Now, it’s CC Attribution Share-Alike for the text, and the MIT license for the code fragments. And his readers can use the code fragments he publishes without worry, as the MIT license is compatible with pretty much everything.

Public domain or the BSD license would have worked as well. Remember that the default in copyright law is All Rights Reserved. If you don’t put a public domain declaration or some sort of license on your code, other folks don’t really have the legal right to use it at all.

Hopefully, other bloggers will see this and make sure their code fragments are licensed appropriately. Also, programmers should be careful to make sure that they have the right to use code, even if they’re just pulling a dozen lines off of someone’s blog. It’s not at all clear that the fair use doctrine always applies to such use, make sure you have a license and attribute your copy properly.