Developers group forms to license Java applets

Rohit Khare (
Wed, 27 Mar 96 11:14:53 -0500

Developers group forms to license Java applets

By Elinor Mills
InfoWorld Electric

Posted at 3:52 PM PT, Mar 26, 1996
A copyright attorney is spearheading an effort to devise a way to license
Java applets that are distributed online and thus more difficult to protect as
intellectual property.

Licensing agreements are also needed to protect developers from liability,
said Jonathan Ezor, a new media attorney at Davis & Gilbert in New York and
general counsel for The Java Developers Organization.

Packaged software comes with a printed license agreement, and downloaded
software includes an on-screen license agreement that addresses copyright and
warranty, including "how much and how little the developer can be liable for,"
he said Monday.

"But for most Java applets, they just run. You never install an applet. You
load a Web page and the applet is downloaded automatically, so the ordinary
models for licenses don't work," he said. "There's no packaging. There's no
installation, and for a user to have to click through an 'I agree' screen for
every applet on every page, it won't work."

Ezor's group is proposing a licensing method whereby the user would agree on
screen to the terms of a licensing "contract" when first encountering a Java
applet, and that agreement would last the duration of the user's browser
session or some other pre-determined period of time that the user is online.

Members of would have the option of having their applets covered by
the form license agreements or not, and applets of non-members would not be
affected. Code in the members' applets would scan information in the user's
computer, possibly in RAM, and detect whether or not the user has entered into
the licensing agreement during the browser session. If not, the member
applets would not download.

Eventually, the organization would help Java developers with mechanisms for
collecting payments if they want to charge for use of the applets. However,
the licensing agreements would work the same for all applets whether they are
free or not. Meanwhile, the developers would maintain the applets and
would maintain the licensing agreements.

"This sounds like a good step in terms of giving developers a way to protect
their intellectual property," said George Paolini, a spokesman for Sun
Microsystems Inc., which created the popular Java object-oriented programming
environment. "I think we'll see more of these sorts of services cropping up
because I think people see the potential for the Internet and the Web to be a
mechanism to access software, and in order for that to happen the developers
need to be reassured that they can protect their property and users need to be
reassured" of the quality of the software.

Although Java applets are only in the beta stage right now, they are
available in full source code and being widely reused, he said. One common use
is for creating LED-class ticker tape animations, such as those that display
information on stocks, that appear at the edge of the screen when particular
Web sites are accessed.

Although the need for a licensing mechanism for the applets, which are really
just small bits of code that perform specific functions, is predicated on
their becoming ubiquitous, their inherent ease of distribution poses a
problem, according to Richard Villars, an analyst at International Data Corp.,
in Framingham, Mass.

Certification "is one of the big challenges we raise when we talk about
Java," he said. A licensing scheme "gives you a place to point the finger if
the Java applet doesn't work. So this would perhaps give people some
reassurance that they're getting it from a registered source, and that would
imply that there's some sort of quality assurance backing it up."

One analyst questioned why the licensing of Java applets couldn't be handled
by the administrator of the server on which the applets reside.

Some Web sites require a user to register upon log-on and even OEMs handle
the licensing for software they bundle onto systems, noted Paul Cubbage,
analyst at Dataquest Inc., in San Jose, Calif.

"There may be times when you want to download an applet and nothing else, but
when you download an applet you get a Web site and you ought to enforce it
[licensing] there," he said. "Any Web site that has a way of charging you has
a mechanism in place. All they've got to do is put the code into the page
you're accessing ..."

However, Ezor pointed out that the end-user, not the Web site administrator,
is operating the applet.

One Java developer disagreed and said that practically nothing, except
"crippling" or hardcoding restrictions into the applet, will effectively
prevent copying and misuse of an applet.

"Basically I just don't think that legal remedies have been particularly
useful in preventing software piracy," said Ian McFarland, principal of Neo
Communication, a Web publisher in San Francisco. "It's already illegal to
steal software, but people do and licensing agreements don't really change

"It's not the end-user who is going to be misusing somebody's applets," he
added. "It's an administrator somewhere who wants to use "X" applet on their

McFarland said he and most other Java developers put copyrights into their
applet code to show ownership, saying that people will be less likely to
plagiarize if they see a copyright notice.

"There is a culture on the 'Net where you share things," he said. "But there
are situations where a developer has put a lot of development time into an
applet and they don't want it readily usable unless there is a specific

Ezor pointed out that copyrighting applets doesn't address the warranty issue
because it doesn't specify terms for use. A licensing agreement, on the other
hand, is a contract and thus provides more protection for developers, he

Elinor Mills is a correspondent for the IDG News Service, an InfoWorld