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As a follow up to Does a BSD-licensed project need a signed statement from each contributor?:

There are several reasons why an open source project might want to get copyright assignments from its contributors. For example:

  • To allow the project author to sue for infringement (as only the copyright holder can do so). This is also why FSF requires such an assignment.
  • To prevent future problems with the contributors, such as they claiming later that they didn't release their contribution under the same OS license.

Another reason is if a company releases its software under (L)GPL and also sells it under a commercial license. Then a copyright assignment is necessary so that the company can include contributions under the commercial license. If the contributors are informed beforehand, this is fair.

But if the company has the copyright to everything, it can do basically anything with the sources, something that the contributors wouldn't agree on. It can switch to another license, like from (L)GPL to a non-copyleft license, or even stop releasing the project as open-source and switch to proprietary licensing only. This has reportedly happened with SourceForge.

So what is a fair way to handle the problem? If the project owner doesn't get copyright assignments, (s)he can get into problems in the future. If (s)he does, the work of the contributors can lose its license or open-source status. Is there a solution to this dilemma that is fair to both sides?

As I'm not a native speaker, I might used wrong legal terms. Please feel free to correct the question.

Related:

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afaik it's fairly hard to "close a source" once it's been released under the GPL. Yes, if you have the copyright you can ALSO release it under another license, but if I have the sources from when it was released under the GPL I can still make a fork. –  Pieter B Feb 4 '13 at 7:44
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you might be interested in project harmony harmonyagreements.org - afaik they include an option for both parties to hold copyright –  d3vid May 10 '13 at 13:54
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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

As stated by @Andrew - fair is a value statement.

However, provided the conditions are clearly stated up front for all to see, it is fair - you have the choice to make if you wish to participate under those conditions, you participate, if not, you don't - what can be considered unfair about that?

As far as full assignment - is it fair for a contributor who made a tiny, insignificant contribution to prevent the major contributor changing the direction of the product? In the case is it fair and reasonable to expect the major contributor to track down every small contributor (maybe decades later, long after they have lost interest), to make a small change to the licensing?

So the question to ask with copyright assignment is not "is it fair" but "Is it practical not to"

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Fair is a value judgement, and a little tricky to judge.

BUT:

  • As long as the intention is clear beforehand then it is probably understandable even if they go overboard to some persons viewpoint.
  • If they go back on their word or stated intention, there might be a case to answer.

And there are other avenues available.

If the original was open sourced, then it is always available at that version as an open source project. And can be easily forked from that point (see numerous examples i.e. XFree86).

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The FSF assignment grants back an irrevocable and unlimited license to your contribution, so you may continue to use your code as you wish. Additionally, it places constraints upon the FSF requiring them to keep the source open.

I think copyright assignment can definitely be made fair presuming the right language is put into the assignment not only to protect the assignee's rights but also the assignor. I had no qualms signing the FSF assignment for two projects.

Many open source projects don't do copyright assignment because they think it's unlikely they'll need it and the paperwork does impose a barrier to entry. But RMS did run into the need (with code from Gosling Emacs) and that's where the FSF requirements come from.

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I personally would be much happier assigning copyright to a properly constituted not-for-profit foundation than to a company or a person.

On the other hand, if the project has a sound Open Source License and publicly available source code, then a company or individual can't kill a vibrant project. They cannot take away the community's ability to fork.

(You will note that I'm don't find it particularly concerning that the copyright assignee can turn a profit from my contributions ... or do other things with the code-base that I would find distasteful, etcetera. 1) I didn't contribute to make a buck, and 2) other people's bad actions are not my moral responsibility. Of course, if you didn't share my view then you would have more reasons to hesitate about assigning copyright at all.)

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