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Tempest in the coffee pot

Java contest rules generate uproar, plus other recent Java news

By Erica Liederman

February  1996
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The purpose of the Java Cup International Applet contest and intentions of the sponsors seemed straightforward enough. According to the contest rules, published in December on Sun's Web site:

"The goal of the Java Cup International is to promote the creation and public availability of the most innovative and original "applets" -- small, interactive, platform-independent applications -- written in the Java programming language and run from within a Web page."

But from the interchanges that appeared in Java newsgroups almost as soon as the contest was announced, it became evident that the contest rules generated almost as much confusion, angst, and suspicion as enthusiasm. Sun enjoined developers from around the world to submit their best Java programming efforts to the contest. In addition to helping Sun promote the use of Java to build Internet applications, by submitting a Java applet contestants become eligible to win up to $200,000 worth of Sun Ultra and SPARC systems equipment. In total, the value of the prizes offered in six different categories, designated for individual as well as team submissions, is more than $1 million.

SunWorld Online was alerted to the dischord among the Java developer community when our attention was brought to the following clause in the rules:

"By participating in the Contest, Contestant waives all claim to intellectual property rights in the entry, including patent rights and copyright, and waives all moral rights, except where prohibited. To the extent that such a waiver is ineffective or unenforceable, Contestant hereby grants Sponsor a non-exclusive license to copy, modify, display and sublicense the entry without geographical limitations or further compensation to the Contestant of any kind, for a period of five (5) years from the date of entry."

Why, programmers asked, should they labor to create Java applets, and then give up all rights to the code, especially if their submissions are not selected as a winners? The argument was this: The waiver reflected the mood and spirit of the contest -- to make as many varied Java applets available in the public domain as possible. But the language of the rules seemed to contradict the contest's stated philosophy.

As one developer and frequent contributor to the discussion pointed out: "Nothing on states that all software will go into the public domain.... The language is clear that the Sponsor retains rights to license (read commerce, money...) the source code.... What is the actual `public domain' copyright, especially when you consider that the Sponsor retains `commercial license' rights?"


Legalese and the Berne Convention
When questioned about the the contest rules, Rod Steedman, Sun's vice president of international legal operations, was shocked that the language of the rules had created such discussion. The problem, so it seems, boils down to legal language. Sun's legal department had to use less-than-optimal wording in order to get around some exclusions that would otherwise be in place according to the terms of the Berne Convention.

The Berne Convention, for the uninitiated, is an international legal treaty designed to protect intellectual property rights of authors in countries outside their own. Of all the countries covered by the contest, only Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, South Africa, and Taiwan were not signatories as of November 1995.

The treaty of the Berne Convention provides, among other things, two general principles:

  1. "National treatment" for authors, meaning that they should enjoy the same protection for their works in other countries as they do in their own; and
  2. "Minimum standards" which means that Berne Convention signatories must afford other Berne Union nationals certain specific features of copyright protection (such as "moral rights," which are defined below) EVEN IF they do not offer those features to their own authors.

According to Steedman, Sun had originally intended to draft the rules of the contest specifying "public domain" licensing on the order of the GNU General Public License agreement. But once they began researching copyright requirements of the different countries where the contest was to be held, they found that in many countries " just can't waive moral rights.... Some countries make it virtually impossible for the creator of an intellectual property to just give it away to the public domain. The concept doesn't exist."

Moral rights
Now for the technicalities. "Moral rights" are defined in Article 6bis of the Berne Convention as such:

"Independently of the author's copyright, and even after the transfer of the said copyright, the author shall have the right, during his lifetime, to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other alteration thereof, or any other action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation."

The conditions under which these rights operate is governed by the individual country law. Each country may legislate how it wishes to enforce such rights; but even if it chooses not to make these rights available to its own nationals, the "moral rights" of foreign nationals must be minimally upheld. So, in other words, every time a non-U.S. contestant who happens to hail from a country where moral rights cannot be waived enters an applet in the contest, he puts both Sun and the developer who plucks it off the Web for use in another, different applet in legal jeopardy. Unless, by entering the contest, he agrees to license the applet to Sun for a specified number of years.

Said Steedman: "Since we had taken the position that we wanted people to waive all of their rights so we could make all of the applets publicly available for whatever use -- in keeping with the philosophy of the contest and Sun's more general `Open Systems' philosophy -- we had to write the rules in such a way that in those cases where a contestant could not by virtue of his country's own laws waive his moral rights, Sun would become the exclusive licensee of the entry for five years."

"We never did, nor do we now, have any intention of holding onto the applets that are submitted. I know that Scott (McNealy, Sun Microsystems' CEO) would be alarmed if he knew that's what developers thought our intent was," added Steedman.

In hopes of clarifying any further misunderstanding, Sun stated that it will address the concerns raised by the newsgroup in a message to the newsgroup, or in a FAQ posted under In spite of the noise (valid though it may have been) that floated onto the Internet airwaves, it seems that entrants from many countries never misunderstood the wording of the contest rules or just did not care. As of this writing, almost 800 Java developers have already entered.

In other Java-related news...

--Erica Liederman

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