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2. Keeping Free Software Free

This node discusses how you can make sure that GNU software avoids legal difficulties, and other related issues.

2.1 Referring to Proprietary Programs  
2.2 Accepting Contributions  
2.3 Trademarks  How We Deal with Trademark Issues


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2.1 Referring to Proprietary Programs

Don't in any circumstances refer to Unix source code for or during your work on GNU! (Or to any other proprietary programs.)

If you have a vague recollection of the internals of a Unix program, this does not absolutely mean you can't write an imitation of it, but do try to organize the imitation internally along different lines, because this is likely to make the details of the Unix version irrelevant and dissimilar to your results.

For example, Unix utilities were generally optimized to minimize memory use; if you go for speed instead, your program will be very different. You could keep the entire input file in core and scan it there instead of using stdio. Use a smarter algorithm discovered more recently than the Unix program. Eliminate use of temporary files. Do it in one pass instead of two (we did this in the assembler).

Or, on the contrary, emphasize simplicity instead of speed. For some applications, the speed of today's computers makes simpler algorithms adequate.

Or go for generality. For example, Unix programs often have static tables or fixed-size strings, which make for arbitrary limits; use dynamic allocation instead. Make sure your program handles NULs and other funny characters in the input files. Add a programming language for extensibility and write part of the program in that language.

Or turn some parts of the program into independently usable libraries. Or use a simple garbage collector instead of tracking precisely when to free memory, or use a new GNU facility such as obstacks.


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2.2 Accepting Contributions

If the program you are working on is copyrighted by the Free Software Foundation, then when someone else sends you a piece of code to add to the program, we need legal papers to use it--just as we asked you to sign papers initially. Each person who makes a nontrivial contribution to a program must sign some sort of legal papers in order for us to have clear title to the program; the main author alone is not enough.

So, before adding in any contributions from other people, please tell us, so we can arrange to get the papers. Then wait until we tell you that we have received the signed papers, before you actually use the contribution.

This applies both before you release the program and afterward. If you receive diffs to fix a bug, and they make significant changes, we need legal papers for that change.

This also applies to comments and documentation files. For copyright law, comments and code are just text. Copyright applies to all kinds of text, so we need legal papers for all kinds.

We know it is frustrating to ask for legal papers; it's frustrating for us as well. But if you don't wait, you are going out on a limb--for example, what if the contributor's employer won't sign a disclaimer? You might have to take that code out again!

You don't need papers for changes of a few lines here or there, since they are not significant for copyright purposes. Also, you don't need papers if all you get from the suggestion is some ideas, not actual code which you use. For example, if someone send you one implementation, but you write a different implementation of the same idea, you don't need to get papers.

The very worst thing is if you forget to tell us about the other contributor. We could be very embarrassed in court some day as a result.

We have more detailed advice for maintainers of programs; if you have reached the stage of actually maintaining a program for GNU (whether released or not), please ask us for a copy.


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2.3 Trademarks

Please do not include any trademark acknowledgements in GNU software packages or documentation.

Trademark acknowledgements are the statements that such-and-such is a trademark of so-and-so. The GNU Project has no objection to the basic idea of trademarks, but these acknowledgements feel like kowtowing, so we don't use them. There is no legal requirement for them.

What is legally required, as regards other people's trademarks, is to avoid using them in ways which a reader might read as naming or labeling our own programs or activities. For example, since "Objective C" is (or at least was) a trademark, we made sure to say that we provide a "compiler for the Objective C language" rather than an "Objective C compiler". The latter is meant to be short for the former, but it does not explicitly state the relationship, so it could be misinterpreted as using "Objective C" as a label for the compiler rather than for the language.


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