🧠 Intellectual Property

Updated at 2014-06-09 11:08

Intellectual property is a legal concept which refers to creative works for which exclusive rights can be recognized. The rights can be gained through various laws and processes such as copyright law, licenses, trademarks and patents.

Copyrights protect creative works and permissions to use them. Copyright is free, automatic and global. Does not require (C) sign but good to include. Copyright applies only to the form in which the work is expressed so it does not apply to any of the following: idea, topic, plot, method, principle, content, format. Copyright applies for 70 years from the death of the creator.

Licenses give permissions to others. This means that the holder of ownership allows other people to use or modify the creation if given terms are met. Licenses can also be sold.

Trademarks protect specific products or services. Applied to specific usage of words, images, shapes, colors, motion, sounds or any combination of the previous. Mainly used to identify them. Similar products must go over an imaginative distinction threshold so they do not break trademarks. Trademarks are regional, you should usually trademark in both US and EU.

Patents protect inventors to make and sell an invention. An invention is a solution to a specific technological problem, a product or process. There is at least partial patent to everything you can ever think of. Patents were originally introduced so that the original inventor would have a time window to address the development costs before competing products emerged.

Open Licenses

Open source licenses mean that the code can be distributed and modified, possibly with some restrictions.

Open source has various benefits. When a library or a software is open source, the development may continue even if the original maker stops improving it. Projects build on top of open source are also cheaper as open source is free.

Open source has a few drawbacks. Less reliable support when not the original author. Fewer options to choose from.

Use permissive licenses. Permissive licenses allow changing the license when modified. Prefer permissive licenses like BSD, MIT and ASL.

Avoid copyleft licenses. Copyleft licenses are contagious. If you have copyleft licensed components in your project, the whole project must have the same license.

BSD LicenSe

BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) license has 3 variants.

BSD (4 clauses): Avoid using as has a troublesome advertisement clause which states that all advertisements have to mention the original developer.

BSD (3 clauses): Is the same as 4 clause BSD but advertisement clause is removed. Also called new BSD or modified BSD license.

BSD (2 clauses): Allows the usage of the original developer used in advertisements. Also called simplified BSD or FreeBSD license.

MIT License

Frequently used in open source projects because it is so simple and permissive. It is basically the same license as the 2 clause BSD license.


ASL (Apache Software License) is a bit more complex license.

You should only consider using the newest version, ASL 2.0.

Main benefit of ASL 2.0 is that it can be used in projects that also have GPLv3 licensed code. But then, the resulting project must be licensed under GPLv3.


GPL (General Public License) software can be used for commercial purposes. It is ok to use GPL tools, compilers and systems as long as they are not distributed with the project.

If a software has a component licensed with GPL, the whole software must be licensed with GPL.

When you modify source code with GPL license, you must include a notice about the modification.

You must offer the source code to the people that are given the software. So when you sell software using GPL, you must also give the source code to the buyers.

Note that SaaS products can use GPL as much as they like as no software is distributed.

Always use the most recent version, GPLv3 as of 2013.


LGPL (Lesser General Public License) is the same as GPL but you do not have to license the whole code base with the same license if you use LGPL code in components like libraries.

CC License

CC (Creative Commons) licenses can be used for any creative work. Usually pictures, videos and text.

There are many variants of CC licenses but they all require crediting the original author for the original creation.

If you use CC licensed images, the best place for the attribution information is the image caption.

Open Source in Companies

If you go open source, allocate time for it. Open source projects require quite a lot of maintenance with all the pull requests, issue tracker and suggestions.

Use the same license for the all open source code inside a company. When a company starts doing open source software, they should specify what license the whole company uses. Otherwise different projects within the company might be incompatible.

  • MIT license is rarely used because third party may use the name of the original creator in advertising.
  • 3 clause BSD license is all-around good choice.
  • ASL contains additional clauses related to patent protection, which companies might prefer.

External contributors should sign a contributor license agreement (CLA). States that the contributor must be the original author, project as the right to use and distribute the code being submitted and that code submitted may be rejected or not used.

Node.js CLA


You should not worry about patents trolls. Do not send any emails, search online or discuss with anyone about potentially breaking any patents, copyrights or trademarks. Violating them knowingly is a whole different story than doing it unknowingly.

Patent trolls needs to notice you before there might be trouble. But if the general public has noticed you, you already made it as a startup. You might end up making 8 million in place of 10 million but it is better than making nothing.

Never cooperate with patent trolls. Always fight to the last straw; if you give in, they will keep on knocking on your door. Call their lawyer and ask specific questions e.g. what patent do they have, how it infringes the patent and if they have economic interest in the outcome of the lawsuit. Do not write NDA, you should talk openly about the patent troll.