Copyright assignment and other barriers to entryApril 8, 2009 1:04 am community, freesoftware, gnome
Daniel Chalef and Matthew Aslett responded to my suggestion at OSBC that copyright assignment was unnecessary, and potentially harmful, to building a core community around your project. Daniel wrote that he even got the impression that I thought requesting copyright assignment was “somewhat evil”. This seems like a good opportunity for me to clarify exactly what I think about copyright assignment for free software projects.
First: copyright assignment is usually unnecessary.
Most of the most vibrant and diverse communities around do not have copyright assignment in place. GIMP, GNOME, KDE, Inkscape, Scribus and the Linux kernel all get along just fine without requesting copyright assignment (joint or otherwise) from new contributors.
There are some reasons why copyright assignment might be useful, and Matthew mentions them. Relicencing your software is easier when you own everything, and extremely difficult if you don’t. Defending copyright infringement is potentially easier if there is a single copyright holder. The Linux kernel is pretty much set as GPL v2, because even creating a list of all of the copyright holders would be problematic. Getting their agreement to change licence would be nigh on impossible.
Not quite 100% impossible, though, as Mozilla has shown. The relicencing effort of Mozilla took considerable time and resources, and I’m sure the people involved would be delighted not to have needed to go through it. But it is possible.
There is another reason proponents say that a JCA is useful: client indemnification. I happen to think that this is a straw man. Enterprise has embraced Linux, GNOME, Apache and any number of other projects without the need for indemnification. And those clients who do need indemnification can get it from companies like IBM, Sun, Red Hat and others. Owning all the copyright might give more credibility to your client indemnification, but it’s certainly not necessary.
There is a conflation of issues going on with customer indemnification too. What is more important than the ownership of the code is the origin of the code. I would certainly agree that projects should follow decent due dilligence procedures to ensure that a submission is the submitter’s own work, and that he has the right or permission to submit the code under your project’s licence. But this is independent of copyright assignment.
Daniel mentions Mozilla as an example of a non-vendor-led-project requiring copyright assignment – he is mistaken. The Mozilla Committer’s Agreement (pdf) requires a new committer to do due dilligence on the origin of code he contributes, and not commit code which he is not authorised to do. But they do not require joint copyright assignment. Also note when the agreement gets signed – not on your first patch, but when you are becoming a core committer – when you are getting right to the top of the Mozilla food chain.
Second: Copyright assignment is potentially harmful.
It is right and proper that a new contributor to your project jump through some hoops to learn the ways of the community. Communities are layered according to involvement, and the trust which they earn through their involvement. You don’t give the keys to the office to a new employee on day one. What you do on day one is show someone around, introduce them to everyone, let them know what the values of your community are.
Now, what does someone learn about the values of your community if, once they have gone to the effort to modify the software to add a new feature, had their patch reviewed by your committers and met your coding standards, the very next thing you do is send them a legal form that they need to print, sign, and return (and incidentally, agree with) before you will integrate their code in your project?
The hoops that people should be made to jump through are cultural and technical. Learn the tone, meet the core members, learn how to use the tools, the coding conventions, and familiarise yourself with the vision of the community. The role of community members at this stage is to welcome and teach. The equivalent of showing someone around on the first day.
Every additional difficulty which a new contributor experiences is an additional reason for him to not stick around. If someone doesn’t make the effort to familiarise himself with your community processes and tools, then it’s probably not a big deal if he leaves – he wasn’t a good match for the project. But if someone walks away for another reason, something that you could change, something that you can do away with without changing the nature of the community, then that’s a loss.
Among the most common superfluous barriers to entry that you find in free software projects are complicated build systems or uncommon tools, long delays in having questions answered and patches reviewed, and unnecessary bureaucracy around contributing. A JCA fits squarely into that third category.
In a word, the core principle is: To build a vibrant core developer community independent of your company, have as few barriers to contributing as possible.
There is another issue at play here, one which might not be welcomed by the vendors driving the communities where I think a JCA requirement does the most harm. That issue is trust.
One of the things I said at OSBC during my presentation is that companies aren’t community members – their employees might be. Communities are made up of people, individual personalities, quirks, beliefs. While we often assign human characteristics to companies, companies don’t believe. They don’t have morals. The personality of a company can change with the board of directors.
Luis Villa once wrote “what if the corporate winds change? … At that point, all the community has is the license, and [the company]’s licensing choices … When [the company] actually trusts communities, and signals as such by treating the community as equals […] then the community should (and I think will) trust them back. But not until then.”
Luis touches on an important point. Trust is the currency we live & die by. And companies earn trust by the licencing choices they make. The Apache Foundation, Python Software Foundation and Free Software Foundation are community-run non-profits. As well as their licence choices, we also have their by-laws, their membership rules and their history. They are trusted entities. In a fundamental way, assigning or sharing copyright with a non-profit with a healthy governance structure is different from sharing copyright with a company.
There are many cases of companies taking community code and forking commercial versions off it, keeping some code just for themselves. Trolltech, SugarCRM and Digium notably release a commercial version which is different from their GPL edition (Update: Several people have written in to tell me that this is no longer the case with Trolltech, since they were bought by Nokia and QT was relicenced under the LGPL – it appeared that people felt clarification was necessary, although the original point stands – Trolltech did sell a commercial QT different from their GPL “community” edition).
There are even cases of companies withdrawing from the community completely and forking commercial-only versions of software which had previously released under the GPL. A recent example is Novell‘s sale of Netmail to Messaging Architects, resulting in the creation of the Bongo project, forked off the last GPL release available. In 2001, Sunspire (since defunct) decided to release future versions of Tuxracer as a commercial game, resulting in the creation of Planet Penguin Racer, among others, off the last GPL version. Xara dipped their toes releasing most of their core product under the GPL, but decided after a few years that the experiment had failed. Xara Xtreme continues with a community effort to port the rendering engine to Cairo, but to my knowledge, no-one from Xara is working on that effort.
Examples like these show that companies can not be trusted to continue developing the software indefinitely as free software. So as an external developer being asked to sign a JCA, you have to ask yourself the question whether you are prepared to allow the company driving the project the ability to build a commercial product with your code in there. At best, that question constitutes another barrier to entry.
At OSBC, I was pointing out some of the down sides of choices that people are making without even questioning them. JCAs are good for some things, but bad at building a big developer community. What I always say is that you first need to know what you want from your community, and set up the rules appropriately. Nothing is inherently evil in this area, and of course the copyright holder has the right to set the rules of the game. What is important is to be aware of the trade-offs which come from those choices.
To summarise where I stand, copyright assignment or sharing agreements are usually unnecessary, potentially harmful if you are trying to build a vibrant core developer community, by making bureaucracy and the trust of your company core issues for new contributors. There are situations where a JCA is merited, but this comes at a cost, in terms of the number of external contributors you will attract.
Updates: Most of the comments tended to concentrate on two things which I had said, but not emphasised enough. I have tried to clarify slightly where appropriate in the text. First, Trolltech used to distribute a commercial and community edition of QT which were different, but as the QT Software Group in Nokia, this is no longer the case (showing that licencing can change after an acquisition (for the better), as it happens. Second, assigning copyright to a non-profit is, I think, a less controversial proposition for most people because of the extra trust afforded to non-profits through their by-laws, governance structure and not-for-profit status. And it is worth pointing out that KDE eV has a voluntary joint copyright assignment for contributors that they encourage people to sign – Aaron Seigo pointed this out. I think it’s a neat way to make future relicencing easier without adding the initial barrier to entry.