Is Apple Rewarding the Tip CUPS or Taking from the Penny Tray?

by on July 12, 2007 · 20 comments

Every once in a while I connect with my inner geek and read through Slashdot. I often see some interesting arguments by people that understand technical issues. However, this comment, made in response to news that Apple purchased the rights to the Common Unix Printing System (CUPS), provoked me:

The real lesson here is that the idea that the developers should pool their copyrights into one person is flawed. That person can then cash out. The get all the profits for everyone else’s work. The other developers lose out on both getting a piece of the pie if they would have wanted that, and they lose out in the moral sense in that if they didn’t want their code to suddenly become part of a closed source project, they have no say in it anymore.

It seems to me that nothing wrong occurred when Apple purchased this code. CUPS, which is used for printing by many Linux distributions and in the Mac OS X, was an open source project created by Michael Sweet. Sweet presumably owned the copyright to the code, so the code was legally his to sell. Sweet should be rewarded for his labor — throw him a buck or two in the tip cup!

But wait…what about the other developers that contributed code to CUPS? Or — forget the tip cup, did Sweet profit from the entire give-a-penny, take-a-penny tray? Have no fear, as CUPS will continue to be an open-source project under a GPL2/LGPL2 license. So there’s no downside and no moral turpitude — developers that chose to contribute code will still see that code available as free software, and can take and add to it as they wish.

What seems to burn the Slashdot commenter is the fact that there’s an upside. Someone actually made money! It’s a shame that when a technology creator/owner like Sweet gets his reward, and doesn’t infringe on the rights of others to do so, he still draws fire. Oh well, in a world where people often materialistically prize money above all, there are also those who wrongly lust over other people’s money.

  • http://tieguy.org/blog/ Luis Villa

    Have no fear, as CUPS will continue to be an open-source project under a GPL2/LGPL2 license.

    It is staying v2, but only at Apple’s sufferance. Had the other contributors to the project kept their copyright, instead of assigning it to Sweet, this would not be at Apple’s sufferance- instead, they would have maintained their rights and Apple would have had to either compensate them directly or otherwise persuade them if it decided to change the license. But instead (for whatever reason) they assigned their copyright, and so Sweet, and only Sweet, has been compensated.

    This is of course legally correct- they did, after all, assign their copyright to Sweet/CUPS, and presumably failed to get some sort of legal guarantee that he would not change/re-assign the copyright, so no laws are being violated or anything. But despite the legal correctness of it, it seems to me that anyone who respects a Lockean labor theory of IP (as opposed to what one might call a ‘corporations are always right’ theory of IP, ahem) would at least be sympathetic to the notion that uncompensated labor was done by parties other than Sweet/CUPS, and that those parties, as a result of their labor, deserve some say in the licensing of their own copyrighted work.

  • http://tieguy.org/blog/ Luis Villa

    Have no fear, as CUPS will continue to be an open-source project under a GPL2/LGPL2 license.

    It is staying v2, but only at Apple’s sufferance. Had the other contributors to the project kept their copyright, instead of assigning it to Sweet, this would not be at Apple’s sufferance- instead, they would have maintained their rights and Apple would have had to either compensate them directly or otherwise persuade them if it decided to change the license. But instead (for whatever reason) they assigned their copyright, and so Sweet, and only Sweet, has been compensated.

    This is of course legally correct- they did, after all, assign their copyright to Sweet/CUPS, and presumably failed to get some sort of legal guarantee that he would not change/re-assign the copyright, so no laws are being violated or anything. But despite the legal correctness of it, it seems to me that anyone who respects a Lockean labor theory of IP (as opposed to what one might call a ‘corporations are always right’ theory of IP, ahem) would at least be sympathetic to the notion that uncompensated labor was done by parties other than Sweet/CUPS, and that those parties, as a result of their labor, deserve some say in the licensing of their own copyrighted work.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    I guess if Apple wants to pay the CUPS folks, they can, but why? After all it is released under the GPL anyway right?

    “The Common UNIX Printing SystemTM, (“CUPSTM”), is provided under the GNU General Public License (“GPL”) and GNU Library General Public License (“LGPL”), Version 2″

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    I guess if Apple wants to pay the CUPS folks, they can, but why? After all it is released under the GPL anyway right?

    “The Common UNIX Printing SystemTM, (“CUPSTM”), is provided under the GNU General Public License (“GPL”) and GNU Library General Public License (“LGPL”), Version 2″

  • http://tieguy.org/blog/ Luis Villa

    They pay them so that they can use it under a different, non-GPL license; i.e., without respecting the restrictions GPL places on them.

  • http://tieguy.org/blog/ Luis Villa

    (This is not to say that there aren’t some very stupid things being said on /. and elsewhere, just that I’d expect TLF contributors to have more understanding and respect for the impulse which underpins the comments, even if the ultimate conclusions are wrong.)

  • http://tieguy.org/blog/ Luis Villa

    They pay them so that they can use it under a different, non-GPL license; i.e., without respecting the restrictions GPL places on them.

  • http://tieguy.org/blog/ Luis Villa

    (This is not to say that there aren’t some very stupid things being said on /. and elsewhere, just that I’d expect TLF contributors to have more understanding and respect for the impulse which underpins the comments, even if the ultimate conclusions are wrong.)

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Braden, don’t you think that morally speaking, there’s an argument that the other contributors deserve a share of Sweet’s profits? CUPS wouldn’t be the high-quality project it is with just Sweet’s code. And I rather doubt that any of the developers said “here, take my copyright, sell it to a big company, and then keep all the money for yourself.” Nobody disputes that what Sweet did was within his legal rights, but libertarians always emphasize that what’s legal and what’s moral are two different concepts.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Braden, don’t you think that morally speaking, there’s an argument that the other contributors deserve a share of Sweet’s profits? CUPS wouldn’t be the high-quality project it is with just Sweet’s code. And I rather doubt that any of the developers said “here, take my copyright, sell it to a big company, and then keep all the money for yourself.” Nobody disputes that what Sweet did was within his legal rights, but libertarians always emphasize that what’s legal and what’s moral are two different concepts.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    Tim, how much of the code was actually written by anyone other than Sweet? How much of the code that wasn’t written by him was non-trivial? If he did the overwhelming majority of the coding, I think what he did was pretty much fair. I don’t know what the labor distribution was, but I wouldn’t discount in the mean time the possibility that CUPS’ success really was due primarily to one developer.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/contributors/braden_cox.php Braden

    I understand the innate “this isn’t fair” reaction – it’s sorta a natural, human response I think, and I felt this upon first read of some of the slashdot comments. But upon further reflection I realized that this was a false morality play.

    I mean, there was just no expectation – legal or moral – on the part of the other code contributors that they would ever receive remuneration for their efforts.

    Additionally, while I’m a big believer in Lockean labor principles, I don’t think it applies in this case. The labor still exists in its GPL v.2 form.

    Here’s perhaps the key – differences exist based on when to judge morality. I give more weight to the details and expectations of the parties at the beginning. Tim, I think you and Luis are judging morality on the end result, which I think is unfair. In your world, every company would have a moral obligation to compensate workers for the sale of the company even if the workers aren’t shareholders or don’t participate in a profit-sharing plan, just due to their contribution to the company as employees. This isn’t a wrong result, and it sounds kind of fair, but it’s just different from the current day expectations of everybody, and to impose moral judgments contrary to expectation is more of an opinion on how the overall system should change, and I think less about the immorality of specific actions.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    Tim, how much of the code was actually written by anyone other than Sweet? How much of the code that wasn’t written by him was non-trivial? If he did the overwhelming majority of the coding, I think what he did was pretty much fair. I don’t know what the labor distribution was, but I wouldn’t discount in the mean time the possibility that CUPS’ success really was due primarily to one developer.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/contributors/braden_cox.php Braden

    I understand the innate “this isn’t fair” reaction – it’s sorta a natural, human response I think, and I felt this upon first read of some of the slashdot comments. But upon further reflection I realized that this was a false morality play.

    I mean, there was just no expectation – legal or moral – on the part of the other code contributors that they would ever receive remuneration for their efforts.

    Additionally, while I’m a big believer in Lockean labor principles, I don’t think it applies in this case. The labor still exists in its GPL v.2 form.

    Here’s perhaps the key – differences exist based on when to judge morality. I give more weight to the details and expectations of the parties at the beginning. Tim, I think you and Luis are judging morality on the end result, which I think is unfair. In your world, every company would have a moral obligation to compensate workers for the sale of the company even if the workers aren’t shareholders or don’t participate in a profit-sharing plan, just due to their contribution to the company as employees. This isn’t a wrong result, and it sounds kind of fair, but it’s just different from the current day expectations of everybody, and to impose moral judgments contrary to expectation is more of an opinion on how the overall system should change, and I think less about the immorality of specific actions.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Braden, the difference is that the GPL creates an expectation of reciprocity that doesn’t exist in a normal commercial transaction. In an employer-employee relationship, it’s assumed that the negotiated salary and benefits are the extent of the moral obligations involved. So if the business owner gets rich due to the employee’s efforts, that’s the employee’s fault for not negotiating better terms.

    But not every aspect of society works that way. If I’m the treasurer for my church, for example, there’s an expectation that I’ll use all the money entrusted to me in a way consistent with the church’s mission. It would be wrong for me to spend church money on a person vacation even if there’s no contract or policy explicitly saying that’s against the rules.

    You’re right that the expectations of parties at the beginning is key. I haven’t talked to them, but I would be very surprised if any of the other copyright holders would have signed their rights over to Sweet if they’d known he was planning to sell those rights to Apple. Putting software under the GPL creates a strong impression that you’re planning to abide by ethical norms of the free software community, which say that any modifications of free software should be contributed back to the community. Sweet’s actions undermined that expectation, and I think it’s perfectly legitimate for other members of the free software community to criticize him for it.

    Mike, that’s a good point. I haven’t looked at the code, so I don’t know how much code was contributed by various parties. But if (say) 10 percent of the code was contributed by other people, it still might be appropriate for him to share 10 percent of the revenue.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Braden, the difference is that the GPL creates an expectation of reciprocity that doesn’t exist in a normal commercial transaction. In an employer-employee relationship, it’s assumed that the negotiated salary and benefits are the extent of the moral obligations involved. So if the business owner gets rich due to the employee’s efforts, that’s the employee’s fault for not negotiating better terms.

    But not every aspect of society works that way. If I’m the treasurer for my church, for example, there’s an expectation that I’ll use all the money entrusted to me in a way consistent with the church’s mission. It would be wrong for me to spend church money on a person vacation even if there’s no contract or policy explicitly saying that’s against the rules.

    You’re right that the expectations of parties at the beginning is key. I haven’t talked to them, but I would be very surprised if any of the other copyright holders would have signed their rights over to Sweet if they’d known he was planning to sell those rights to Apple. Putting software under the GPL creates a strong impression that you’re planning to abide by ethical norms of the free software community, which say that any modifications of free software should be contributed back to the community. Sweet’s actions undermined that expectation, and I think it’s perfectly legitimate for other members of the free software community to criticize him for it.

    Mike, that’s a good point. I haven’t looked at the code, so I don’t know how much code was contributed by various parties. But if (say) 10 percent of the code was contributed by other people, it still might be appropriate for him to share 10 percent of the revenue.

  • Morgan Reed

    Tim,

    You missed Braden’s key point, and it was one I personally had never thought about: Just like in an employee-employer relationship, the benefits and expectations are negotiated on up-front via the GPL.

    Every single person who contributed code to the project will never lose access to the code they contributed nor to code contributed under the GPL by others. That’s far more than anyone gets from an employer!

    And as to why people decided to assign copyright to their code to Matthew Sweet? It’s simple, Mr. Sweet controlled the project called CUPS – the “brand”. If you wanted to have your code included in the project called CUPS, then you had to assign the code to Mr. Sweet.

    This is very similar to what MySQL does, and even the FSF. So even that part of the equation was presented up-front. If you want your addition to show in the main branch you must assign your copyright.

    One other point central to this, and one that Luis missed, is that Apple plays no role in determining the license of the CUPS code contributed under the GPL. So where Luis says it’s GPLv2 ” but only at Apple’s sufferance”, he’s just plain wrong. NONE of the GPL code is lost, gone, or unavailable in any way for use in other GPL efforts.

    The difference is that Apple can build on Mr. Sweet’s code and
    release products that keep the newly added code proprietary. And this, too, is an upfront exchange. Apple will not be able to receive any additional patches from the “community” unless the author willingly relinquishes copyright. Essentially any continued work moves in-house. The “community” doesn’t reap any benefit, but neither do they sow.

    And Tim, your Church Treasurer analogy is not workable. By
    definition, the “Treasurer” has a fiduciary responsibility to the board of the church and by extension the shareholders/members. The Treasurer can’t use the money for vacation not because of a statement in a contract, but rather by the fact that the money isn’t his, it’s the Church’s.

    For CUPS, the copyright contributions were made to Mr. Sweet (technically to his company, but it was a sole proprietorship), therefore he chooses how to use the contributions.

    But here’s the kicker – unlike your church example, we are taking about that odd beast Intellectual Property. With IP you can have property that can be held in two places at once! So to stretch your Church analogy, the Board can approve a vacation for the treasurer, and never lose a dime from the bank. All the code that was previously “banked” is still there, and usable by the parishioners.

  • Morgan Reed

    Tim,

    You missed Braden’s key point, and it was one I personally had never thought about: Just like in an employee-employer relationship, the benefits and expectations are negotiated on up-front via the GPL.

    Every single person who contributed code to the project will never lose access to the code they contributed nor to code contributed under the GPL by others. That’s far more than anyone gets from an employer!

    And as to why people decided to assign copyright to their code to Matthew Sweet? It’s simple, Mr. Sweet controlled the project called CUPS – the “brand”. If you wanted to have your code included in the project called CUPS, then you had to assign the code to Mr. Sweet.

    This is very similar to what MySQL does, and even the FSF. So even that part of the equation was presented up-front. If you want your addition to show in the main branch you must assign your copyright.

    One other point central to this, and one that Luis missed, is that Apple plays no role in determining the license of the CUPS code contributed under the GPL. So where Luis says it’s GPLv2 ” but only at Apple’s sufferance”, he’s just plain wrong. NONE of the GPL code is lost, gone, or unavailable in any way for use in other GPL efforts.

    The difference is that Apple can build on Mr. Sweet’s code and
    release products that keep the newly added code proprietary. And this, too, is an upfront exchange. Apple will not be able to receive any additional patches from the “community” unless the author willingly relinquishes copyright. Essentially any continued work moves in-house. The “community” doesn’t reap any benefit, but neither do they sow.

    And Tim, your Church Treasurer analogy is not workable. By
    definition, the “Treasurer” has a fiduciary responsibility to the board of the church and by extension the shareholders/members. The Treasurer can’t use the money for vacation not because of a statement in a contract, but rather by the fact that the money isn’t his, it’s the Church’s.

    For CUPS, the copyright contributions were made to Mr. Sweet (technically to his company, but it was a sole proprietorship), therefore he chooses how to use the contributions.

    But here’s the kicker – unlike your church example, we are taking about that odd beast Intellectual Property. With IP you can have property that can be held in two places at once! So to stretch your Church analogy, the Board can approve a vacation for the treasurer, and never lose a dime from the bank. All the code that was previously “banked” is still there, and usable by the parishioners.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    Every single person who contributed code to the project will never lose access to the code they contributed nor to code contributed under the GPL by others. That’s far more than anyone gets from an employer!

    Even more important, though, is that CUPS may loss it’s developer base–those who want to can simply take the code, start their own project, release it under GPL 3.0. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see that happen.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Every single person who contributed code to the project will never lose access to the code they contributed nor to code contributed under the GPL by others. That’s far more than anyone gets from an employer!

    Even more important, though, is that CUPS may loss it’s developer base–those who want to can simply take the code, start their own project, release it under GPL 3.0. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see that happen.

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