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Linden Lab maintains the source code for its viewer as an unencumbered asset (through the mechanism of contribution agreements). This allows it to maintain the value of the codebase in the event of a sale, but brings with it some rather obvious problems.

Linden Lab only accepts code into the viewer through in-house development or through contribution agreements. The contribution agreements allow Linden Lab to act as if it were the sole copyright holder with respect to any code contributed under those agreements. This frees Linden Lab of the strictures of the GPL/LGPL licensing under which the code has been variously released, and allows it to indulge in any licensing arrangement (or to maintain the value of the codebase as an asset in the event of sale of the business) of the code that it pleases.

This is – on the whole – a pretty good deal for the Lab.

It isn’t without some obvious problems, however.

In maintaining the status of the codebase as an unencumbered asset, the Lab cannot accept a single line of code that isn’t provided under a contribution agreement. To do so would place the whole codebase under GPL/LGPL licensing (as appropriate), devalue the sale value of the asset and eliminate most of the Lab’s alternatives for licensing the code to others under other terms.

Additionally, if the Lab’s legal team is on the ball, Lab developers should technically be restrained from examining third-party viewer code that contains features or bug-fixes which have not been contributed under one of the Lab’s contribution agreements. To allow developers to do so carries the risk of the code-base’s unencumbered status being tainted by unintentional derivation of the work of others. A copyright no-no. Such restraints are relatively commonplace in software development businesses.

If the legal team is feeling particularly strict, it might even choose to bar developers from developing features or implementing bugfixes to substantially similar third-party efforts. Some companies do this to avoid narrowing their licensing options.

It only takes a moment’s thought, therefore, to realise that third-party developers actually carry a fair bit of unintended weight in the relationship between third-party developers and first-party developers. Linden Lab simply cannot touch code that doesn’t fall under a contribution agreement, and cannot even risk looking at it, from the standpoint of intellectual property law and precedent, lest it become potentially liable for infringement and/or taint the licensing status of the asset.

A concerted and coordinated effort by third-party developers could even progressively shut Linden Lab out of much of the process of viewer development, incrementally, forcing the Lab to negotiate for contributions.

Of course, for the Lab’s part, it can shut the door on anybody it pleases. However, the situation is quite an interesting one.

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Categories: Opinion, Software.

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