Spotlight On Copyright Issues Of Blockchain Technology


With the growing universe of blockchain based systems and applications, legal questions associated with this technology emerge and require consideration (ideally) before substantial sums are invested. In this blog series related to blockchain, we have covered a number of legal aspects (such as Starting an Initial Token Offering (ITO, also called Initial Coin Offering or ICO) - Things to consider and Blockchain for Patents - Patents for Blockchain) already.

This blogpost is about copyright in the blockchain environment.

Traditionally, copyright protects works of authorship, such as literary or musical works, from unauthorised reproduction (copying, alteration etc.).

Now how is this possibly relevant in the context of blockchains? The answer is: software code.

Many countries' copyright laws protect software code (source and object code) against unauthorised reproduction or alteration. This and possible patents are the reason why you have to accept a license agreement any time you install an app on your mobile phone or a new software on your computer. By this license, the copyright owner grants you the right to use the software in a way that would otherwise be prohibited by copyright law (e.g. installing the software amounts to copying).

Technical and Legal Considerations

Since blockchains (distributed ledgers) and related applications come in a wide variety of implementations, we will only address a few main principles here. Different "pieces" of software can be identified such as

the blockchain software (implementing the blockchain, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum core) Middleware Applications integrating with / using the blockchain Smart contracts deployed on a blockchain Since it is the very purpose of blockchains to be computed on a network of different computers, copying the core and all code contained in the blockchain is system-immanent. Moreover, many blockchain projects live from contributions by "the community". Now, what rules govern the use, alteration or copying of such software?

Most public known blockchain projects are open source projects. Open source means that software is licensed under distribution terms that comply with certain criteria (such as access to source code, free redistribution, permission to make modifications and derivative works, no discrimination rules etc., see e.g. the widely used Open Source Definition of the Open Source Initiative).

There is a large number of different open source licenses with significantly...

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