Publishers of books, magazines and other print, sound and video materials are required under the Copyright Act to deposit publications with the National Library (and, under State Copyright Acts, to various State and University libraries). The reason for legal deposit is obvious: use by the general public, both now and into the future. Having copies of books available in libraries means that they will still be available after they go out of print or the publishers disappear. It’s a good protection for cultural material.
One thing not covered by legal deposit (at least in most jurisdictions) is software. The nature of the software industry makes it far more likely that a given program will go ‘out of print’ – over the past 25 years countless software companies have gone out of business. Unlike books, however, the copies of the software purchased by consumers aren’t human-readable. While an old software package may be available on eBay, its source code may very well be lost forever when the company collapses. Source code needs to be preserved for several reasons: it’s needed for future usage (recompiling and porting to newer architectures and operating systems) and it’s needed so the software can be studied.
I propose a legal deposit system for computer software. Software publishers with an annual turnover of more than $1 million would be required to submit a full, complete copy of their final source code, release binaries, documentation and associated materials to the National Software and Multimedia Archive. The Archive would keep access to the material (other than documentation and freely available material) closed for 15 years, when it would be released for public access. An extension on this period would be available if the company could prove that the software is still of commercial value.
A software archive has other advantages: access could be provided to government agencies and academics on NDAs for security research and bugfixing purposes, and software indexes could be of great value to consumers and procurement agencies.
Legal deposit needs to protect today’s software, before it goes forever.
(NB: The best solution, of course, is to release all software as Free Software. Not that that will happen soon, unfortunately.)