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[ih] Who owns old RFCs ?
- Subject: [ih] Who owns old RFCs ?
- From: gnu at toad.com (John Gilmore)
- Date: Tue, 21 Apr 2020 21:15:35 -0700
- In-reply-to: <[email protected]>
- References: <[email protected]>
It's unclear what the question means: "Who owns a document that
explicitly allows unlimited distribution for any purpose". Normally
the "owner" is the copyright owner, the one who can sue people who
violate the document's conditions on copying. But if there are no
conditions, then there are no targets for lawsuits, so no need for
someone with the power to sue.
Many of the old RFCs were written by the federal government or under
government contracts. The law of copyright is that the government
itself can't own original copyright on its own work. So, for example,
for anyone who was a DARPA employee at the time they wrote an RFC,
that RFC is in the public domain. The rules for contractors are more
complicated. A government contractor CAN claim copyright on work that
they did for the government; you can see how beltway bandits have bent
the above simple rule about the public domain, for their own benefit.
But it depends on what the contract says about who owns the resulting
intellectual property. I don't know where we could find copies of the
contracts between DARPA (or other agencies like NSF later) and the
universities, BBN, etc who wrote early RFCs. See details of the law
As a separate matter, under US copyright law, if a document was
published in the United States without a copyright notice before
January 1, 1978, it permanently entered the public domain. If it was
published without a copyright notice between then and February 28,
1989, it would have lost its copyright protection (entered the public
domain) unless specific steps were taken shortly thereafter. See:
As has been pointed out numerous times, part of the reason the
Internet protocols succeeded was that they were freely copyable by
anyone interested in the topic, unlike the national and international
standards committee output that the Internet standards were competing
I recommend that the IETF Trust assert that nobody owns the RFCs
published before March 1989, and designate a period for anyone who
claims a copyright in an RFC published between then and 1994 to approach
the Trust to negotiate the claim, otherwise the Trust will treat their
RFCs as estopped from claiming copyright protection, due to the owners
authorizing broad distribution without limitation when they were created.
PS: I am not a lawyer. EFF's copyright lawyers might be happy to
consult with the Trust, though, to help work this out. Or you
might ask Pam Samuelson's law clinic at UC Berkeley.