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I'm releasing an open source project. I want to make it as inclusive as possible for any community that might embrace it. Specifically, I don't want the code copyrighted in my name when an entire community might work on it; that approach seems self-centred and alienating. My immediate thought to avoid this issue is to assign the copyright to a company rather than myself. How do I do this? Do I have to register a corporation? Can I just give the name of a group and call that a company? What legal hurdles are there? I honestly have no idea when it comes to this sort of thing.

(I'm in Canada and want to use the GPL, if that helps.)

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This is something I'd ask the Software Freedom Law Center instead. –  Martijn Pieters Jul 24 '12 at 17:56
    
Unless you want to force other contributors to assign their copyright, I don't see why would keeping your own code under your name be alienating; it's how almost all open source projects work. –  André Paramés Jul 25 '12 at 9:43

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Not a lawyer, not legal advice.

There are 3 types of companies: Sole Proprietorship, Partnership, and Corporation. In my understanding, only a corporation is a separate legal entity, so that must be what you're talking about here.

As someone who has incorporated a company in Canada before, trust me, this is a big pain in the butt. There are hundreds of dollars of expenses, plus you have to keep up paperwork every year, not to mention a corporate tax return. Doing it yourself is time consuming, and if you want to hire it out, it costs a lot more than a personal tax return. Just to create something to register a copyright to? I suggest not doing that.

Whether or not you want the code copyrighted under your name is irrelevant. As soon as you write something, the copyright belongs to you, unless you're working "for hire". You then have the right to license it any way you want. All of open source is based around this principle.

Personally I'd be happier if the copyright of an open source project belonged to the original author rather than some corporation, because what's stopping someone from selling the company? It could just be gobbled up.

I say, don't worry about registering or assigning copyright, just release the thing under the GPL and be done with it.

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Not Canadian, but I did some googling and there also seems to be the option of creating a not-for-profit organization at the province or federal level as a separate legal entity. Which might fit better in his case... it looks like it still requires fees to set up and maintain. –  Nate Jul 24 '12 at 17:25
    
@Scott - great (non-legal) advice. I'll likely keep it under my own name for those reasons; I'm operating on a shoestring budget and simply don't have the time nor resources to keep up with the paperwork. Nate - I'll look into the not-for-profit organization route, just for completeness. –  Dylan Knowles Jul 24 '12 at 17:49
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+1 for GPL and be done with it. –  John R. Strohm Jul 25 '12 at 15:29

You have two issues that you are wrestling with here. Licensing and Copyright.

Licensing is how you intend to allow others to use your code. You stated you wish to use GPL.

Copyright is who owns the expression of the ideas that your code represents.

You may allow others to use your code (aka license their usage) without giving up ownership of that code. Any modifications to the ideas (code) would subsequently be owned by the authors making the changes.

You need to answer what it is your truly are trying to accomplish.

If you just want others to be able to use your code, modify, and re-publish, then licensing is all you need to worry about. And you're done in this case, since you've settled upon the GPL.

If in the future you want to be able to fork the project and re-license it under a different license, then you'll need to worry about copyright. All copyright owners must agree to the re-licensing of the project. And that's where things start to get tricky.

If you want others to be able to re-license the project without your intervention, then you would need to renounce your claim to copyright of the code. Note that future users would still need all the other contributors to do the same thing, or they would have to get re-license permission from the other copyright owners.

If you plan to shepherd this project for some time, and reserve the right to re-license in the future, then you'll want to have contributors assign their copyright to you or provide some long term means of contacting them for future approval.

Based upon your question, I think you are looking at the simple case and just want others to use your project freely. That's a license question, and you're already done since you picked GPL.

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Just a nit-pick, other authors don't have to "assign" their copyright completely over to you, as there is the option of having them sign a Joint Copyright Assignment which means you both effectively own the rights. That allows you to re-license without tracking them down for their permission. –  Scott Whitlock Jul 24 '12 at 18:03
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Ooh, now that's an interesting idea. How would one go about making a Joint Copyright Assignment? I saw an example on the OpenOffice website; is this a "standard" JCA? –  Dylan Knowles Jul 24 '12 at 19:54
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@kanov-baekonfat - I always thought the one for SharpDevelop was nicely succinct. –  Scott Whitlock Jul 24 '12 at 20:02

(Note: not a lawyer. For legal advice worth the paper its printed on, go talk to one)

You may not have much of a choice if you want worldwide appeal.

First, for Berne Convention signatories, Copyright is automatically applied to a work the moment it's created. So your initial choice that is closest to what you want is to explicitly relinquish the copyright: enter it into the Public Domain. However, in some countries this is not possible. Germany is a notable example: Public Domain exists there, but only for works by authors who have been long dead (It's a fairly safe bet this isn't the case on this one, unless you're a brain in a jar writing this through zombie electrical impulses. If so, kudos!) This means that it would be illegal for people in Germany to use or contribute to your work without a little more effort on your part.

So the next best thing, I feel, is to use some kind of free software licence. These in general state "This stuff is mine, use it however you feel." I personally use the MIT licence for this, because I don't mind if other people use my stuff (in fact, I'm happy if they do), but don't particularly care to control it. If they go and make millions out of it, all the best to them. Also, if they use it in their nuclear reactor, that's their problem, not mine. Other licences exist with slightly different intents.

For contributors to the project, do ensure that they agree to have their contributions distributed under the same licence, because their contributions also have their copyright automatically assigned to them (so you'd have to deal with this anyway).

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