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Many developers have read Getting Things Done and turned it into an app in one way or another. Some have have even dared to write programs based on other books despite the overwhelming popularity of GTD. Thinking Rock was the first one that I tried out. When you look at all of them out there on various platforms, both desktop and mobile, there have probably been far too many to list by now. Is this legal or are they just getting away with it?

I would like to produce a mega-app, an integrated productivity environment, that minimalistically implements not only GTD, but as many books on my bookshelf as possible. This covers a broad range of topics: productivity, time-management, motivation, procrastination, brain/mind improvement, etc. I would also like to throw in ideas I get at random from articles, interviews, and other media. Finally, my personal favorite, I would like to implement the major categories of a game I've been addicted to for about twenty years now as a time-management methodology. Very briefly: Growth - exercise, diet, meditation and other related tasks; Science - math (Project Euler, Khan Academy), reading fiction and nonfiction, and other brain improving tasks; Gold - working a job, selling plasma, balancing your checkbook, and other finance-related tasks; Culture - writing, drawing, playing an instrument and other artistic tasks; Production - housework, yardwork, routine work, honey-do's and other high-urgency low-priority tasks; Wonders - projects of high importance: writing a book, writing a program, writing an album, starting a business, building a sculpture, re-building an engine, etc. I call all of this CivLife.

If it makes a difference, I don't intend to profit from it. I would like it to be free/libre/open-source software. Is using the ideas of others like this legal? Would I get away with it? Is it dead in the water? I'm asking because it's an idea that's been stewing in my head for years. I got my BS-IT, but I don't have any experience, so I'm unemployed. I would like to make this program my experience and my life's work, but I don't want it to come back and bite me in the behind.

p.s. If this is the kind of open-ended, debate-stirring, not-beneficial-to-everyone question that gets closed, I apologize and would be happy to refactor it.

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closed as off topic by Justin Cave, MichaelT, Eric King, Blrfl, Thomas Owens Jun 2 '13 at 1:25

Questions on Programmers Stack Exchange are expected to relate to software development within the scope defined by the community. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about reopening questions here. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Related: Baker v. Selden, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the "useful art" or practice detailed in a book could only be monopolized by patent, not by the copyright of the work in which the idea was expressed: "Whilst no one has a right to print or publish his book, or any material part thereof, as a book intended to convey instruction in the art, any person may practice and use the art itself which he has described and illustrated therein." –  apsillers Jun 1 '13 at 1:45
As this is a legal question, it is almost certainly off topic here. In general, however, abstract ideas are not patentable. I doubt that many time-management books provide anything that is specific enough to be patentable (or that most would bother patenting anything). But it's possible that something you want to implement would potentially violate some patent somewhere. You'd need a patent attorney to provide specific advice. A decent introduction to what sort of ideas can (and cannot) be patented tms.org/pubs/journals/JOM/matters/matters-9410.html –  Justin Cave Jun 1 '13 at 1:52
This is really more of a copyright question than a patent question. Ideas themselves are never afforded any sort of protection. You might run into issues with how people have implemented these ideas and any protections they have received (copyright, patent) for those implementations. –  ihtkwot Jun 1 '13 at 2:00
@Justin Cave: I'm sorry. I could've sworn I read somewhere that legal matters were permissible topics here. Is there a better forum for this? I was thinking about just sending an email to the Software Freedom Law Center or something. –  dsgfloss Jun 1 '13 at 2:08
There are legal questions of licensing which programmers are familiar with and can answer as a programmer. There are questions that delve into the nuances of IP law or regional specifics of contract law which need a lawyer to answer. The later, as a programmer one can't give an expert advice on, are thus off topic. –  MichaelT Jun 1 '13 at 4:03

1 Answer 1

In a word, YES. If I wrote a cook-book with an awesome bread recipe, and you in your kitchen decided to use my recipe to make your break for sale, that would be perfectly legal.

BUT -- and the but's a doozy -- there are two huge caveats. First, you can't use my name or logo without my permission, especially if I call it a "trademark" anywhere, such as with the "tm" or "(r)" designators. And, secondly, if I somehow have a patent on that recipe or a process used therein you can't use it, even if you came up with it on your own, until you get my permission or my patent expires.

(And there's the minor caveat that you can't copy and give out my recipe to whomever asks, although you can write it down in your own words and do so.)

So what does all that mean for your question, "can I write software to implement a methodology described in a book?" Well, it means there's a fairly straightforward test.

  1. Does the book say anywhere that all or part of it is patented?
  2. Does a simple search for "[name of book or method] patent" show you that it looks patented?
  3. Will you use the name of the book, author, or method to implement it?
  4. Will you have to copy any text, images, or diagrams right out of the book?

If you answered "Yes" to any of the four above, you probably can't do it without permission. And the book might include permission in it, by the way -- anything from a informal "go ahead and make tools to help yourself or others do this" line or a formal software agreement, to actually contacting the rights-holder and asking for permission.

Final caveats: I am not a lawyer. I am definitely not YOUR lawyer. If you aren't in the United States of America, or you have any questions whatsoever, either ask for permission from the book's author or publisher, or hire yourself a lawyer and ask her this question. Do not take legal advice from strangers on the internet.

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Good answer, although questions 3 and 4 are phrased negatively (answering "yes" is a requirement, not a disqualification). –  apsillers Jun 1 '13 at 21:44
d'oh! (fixed now). –  DougM Jun 1 '13 at 23:27

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