Back in 1976, Steve Wozniak of Apple fame published a computer program library in volume 1, issue 7 of Dr Dobbs Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia (Running Light Without Overbyte), a well respected journal for computer hobbyists of the era. See page 207 here:


  • neither the article nor the individual journals have any kind of copyright notice or license. However, volume 5 (page 120) does state that the journal is copyrighted, and refers to a section on Reprint Privileges which is apparently inside the front page... which is not included in the compilation!
  • I did eventually track down a copy of the Reprint Privileges, and it looks like a license:

Articles herein that are copyrighted by individual authors or otherwise explicitly marked as having restricted reproduction rights may not be reprinted or copied without permission from People's Computer Company. All other articles may be reprinted for any non-commercial purpose, provided a credit-line is included. The credit-line should incidate that it was reprinted from DR DOBB'S JOURNAL OF COMPUTER CALISTHENICS & ORTHODONTIA, and include our address

  • as the article in question doesn't have a copyright notice attached, this suggests that it's covered by a non-commercial-use-only license. But:
    • if the article is copyrighted, then by its own rules, the license doesn't apply.
    • if the article isn't copyrighted, it's in the public domain and the license is irrelevant, surely?
  • the article was published in the United States in 1976, which is before the Copyright Act of 1976.
  • my understanding of pre-1976 US copyright law is that to have a work copyrighted, you needed to have registered the work and include a copyright notice with a literal © in it when publishing. I don't know whether you're allowed to register after publishing. Some basic searches hasn't shown up a registration card for this version.
  • a later version of the same piece of code was published in an Apple reference manual in 1977: this one did have a copyright notice and an 'all rights reserved' statement. http://6502.org/source/floats/wozfp3.txt And I did find a registration card for it (attached). Is this at all relevant to the 1976 version?
  • but of course, there's a difference between using the program and reprinting the article. It seems that 1980's CONTU was when computer programs were first explicitly covered by copyright in the US. The status of whether they were copyrightable at all prior to then appears vague, and quite honestly, at this point my brain is melting. (See also US Copyright Status of Software Source Code Created Prior to 1980?, which has one answer, and that with a negative score.)

So, is the code and/or article public domain or not?

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  • Addendum: I found a useful reference as to copyright duration: guides.library.cornell.edu/copyright/publicdomain Essentially, works before 1978 which were published without a copyright notice are in the public domain. So, now the question is whether the Dr. Dobbs journal's copyright applies to other people's work which they are publishing... Aug 29, 2023 at 21:36
  • I don't understand your confusion with the license. The permission basically says that you are allowed to reprint articles (for non-commercial purposes) provided you include a credit line. But if the particular article is "explicitly marked as having restricted reproduction rights", then that permission does not apply. And if the particular article is individually copyrighted by the author (as opposed to copyrighted by the journal), then that permission does not apply, either.
    – Brandin
    Aug 30, 2023 at 11:48

2 Answers 2


Strangely enough, I recently had the very same question about the very same code. My understanding from reading Volume 1 up to this point was that, at least in these early days of DDJ, the published source code (which was considered to be separate from the “articles”) was intended to be in the public domain, unless explicitly noted. Though I can’t find any clear statement to this effect, I believe the quotes below, in addition to the information you’ve provided about copyright law at the time, support this view:

From the Wikipedia article about the People’s Computer Company:

The company was an early proponent of software without copyright, and published much of it in the above books, in DDJ and in another periodical. […] Because the code was without copyright, authors were free to study it, adapt, rewrite and build upon it. The same was true of the more systems-oriented code published in DDJ. This no-copyright practice was a significant boost to the growing body of microcomputer software and applications, and to the general base of knowledge and developing best practices in the young industry.

Jim Butterfield:

“Tiny Basic” was produced as a free program; to publish it, the authors started a publication which they called “Dr. Dobbs Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia.” At that time, Dr. Dobbs was conceived as a public domain vehicle; all material in it was free from copyright. The publication still exists, but the whimsical name has been truncated to “Dr. Dobbs Journal.” … and its contents are now copyright.

From a 1978 DDJ ad (italics preserved)

Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Tiny BASIC Calisthenics & Orthodontia was the birthplace of Tiny BASIC. Since then it has been the source of public domain systems and applications software. The only small computer magazine to publish complete documented source code for microcomputer operating systems and compilers.

From Issue No 2, February 1976:

This JOURNAL is explicitly available to serve as a communication medium concerning the design, development, and distribution of free and low-cost software for the home computer.

From Vol. 1, No. 3 (March 1976), p. 4:

TINY BASIC IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA We hear that a version of Tiny BASIC has been implemented for the MOS Technology 6502, and has been seen scurrying about at the Southern California Computer Society. Anyone know if there is truth in that rumor? If so, wanna place it in the public domain via publication in Dr Dobb’s Journal? We’d be delighted to do so.

From Vol. 1, No. 5 (May 1976), p. 3 (COPYRIGHT MANIA: It’s mine; it’s mine, and you can’t play with it!):

  1. We feel this proprietary preoccupation is a waste and misuse of time and energies of talented software professionals.

Perhaps someone could contact Bob Albrecht (I was sorry to learn that Jim Warren passed away in 2021) or Woz to seek clarification.

  • 1
    I generally agree as to intent, but it unfortunately conflicts with what they actually say in the text. Back then people used the terms very sloppily and 'public domain' generally meant 'copyrighted but freely available' (I've been trying to track down old open source CP/M software, and the amount of stuff that claims to be 'public domaiin for non-commercial use' makes me cringe!). My gut feeling is that the copyright statement and license in the inside front page is really only intended to apply to the article text, but does the law actually support that? Sep 3, 2023 at 16:10

Your estimation that there is no copyright notice is wrong. The journal contains a proper copyright notice as required in 1977, on the inside of the cover next to the Editorial. Pay special attention to the 3rd paragraph, 2nd line:

copyright notice in the journal in question

The copyright is described in that location as Copyright (c) 1977 by People's Computer Company. That is enough to establish that someone did claim the copyright in 1977, and fulfill the legal obligation then. With a publication of 1977 and a corporate copyright owner means, that the journal and article are under copyright until 2072.

  • 2
    That's actually the copyright notice for the compilation, although the one on the journal itself is similar (I tracked down the complete PDF: cini.classiccmp.org/pdf/DrDobbs/DrDobbs-1976-08-v1n7.pdf). But I'm not sure about your argument. They can only claim copyright on the stuff Wozniak and co. sent in (as opposed to the article text, which PCC wrote) if it was work for hire. If that was the case, then wouldn't Apple's 1977 copyright claim on a derived version of the same code be invalid? Unless they bought it back from PCC, which seems very unlikely. Aug 29, 2023 at 21:28
  • Alternatively, Wozniak and co. could have given PCC publication rights, but for that to work then wouldn't they have to register the work for copyright so that they had rights to hand over? Which they don't seem to have done. So I'm not sure they can claim copyright on the the work itself, only the aggregate copyright for the version in the journal. Aug 29, 2023 at 21:30
  • Also, didn't corporate copyright start in 1978, which was after this was published? Aug 29, 2023 at 21:34

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