Where do I begin?

John D. Gwinner gwinner at northnet.org
Fri Mar 6 19:01:15 PST 1998


>Me just dumb programmer, but it seems like
>looking at their source to understand how the VM's supposed to work so
>you can work on another VM would fall under "research".

The problem isn't the problem, it's the appearance of the problem.  What I
mean by that is that whether you've stolen Sun source to implement another
VM isn't the issue, it's only if it appears that you *might have*.  A
totally clean room implementation can, legally, come up with the same source
code and not be an infringement.

Patents confuse things of course, because a patent is public knowledge
anyway, and as long as something isn't prior art, after the patent is
awarded even if you come up with the idea on your own (and can document
that), the implementation of the idea still falls under the patent.

Copyrights though are another matter.  The issue came to a head in the PC
industry over the BIOS; IBM claimed the only way to make a BIOS for a truly
compatible PC was to license it from them.  Phoenix (? I forget if it them
or AMI) first solved this issue with a 'clean room' implementation by giving
the BIOS spec to someone who'd lived in a cave (i.e. never seen a PC) and
told the programmer "Make this BIOS work like this" .. the 'this' being the
spec (in our case the VM spec we're working with).  As a result, the BIOS
code this person came up with was dramatically different in it's internals,
but did the same basic job.  That sort of thing is NOT infringing on a
copyright.  A copyright covers just an expression of an idea, not the idea

So the issue with a clean room is that it's a defensible way to say that the
VM produced is in now way an infringement on the Sun copyright of the
source.  However, if you've looked at the source, and then code something
similar, it's not too hard for lawyers to prove to a judge that you lifted
the copyright material, and thus you'll get slammed.

It's left as an exercise for the reader how a 'clean room' can be put
together; it works well to choose programmers who've lived on Mars until
recently but they are hard to come by.  Certainly, nobody living in
Washington can ever work in a clean room without leaking something <G>

        == John ==

P.S.  I am not a lawyer, but I'm somewhat familiar with some of these
issues, but don't take this as legal gospel.

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