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15 March 2011 @ 12:49 pm
Copyright assignment is killing the “free” in free software  

A few weeks ago, at work, we were looking for a solution to a tricky printing problem: how to manage, in a centralized infrastructure, a large number of locations, worstations and printers?

One of the consultants working for us came up with a great idea. With only a 20-line patch to CUPS, workstations would be able to find which printers are on the same location. 20 lines of code, instead of a complex virtualisation solution? This is exactly the kind of reasons why we use free software: when there’s something wrong, you can fix it. When you need something more, you can code it.

Now, many others could benefit of such an improvement, and we don’t want to maintain a forked version of CUPS, so we forwarded it upstream, who looked interested. But upstream now being Apple, they requested a stupid copyright assignment agreement.

I will leave to the reader’s imagination the complexity of getting such a document signed in a Fortune 500 company with no business with Apple. This will, of course, not happen - and if the decision was mine, the answer would have been a clear “No.” No, because I want to improve free software, not to contribute to Apple’s proprietary version. No, because copyleft is about giving as much as you take.

How many contributions are being left out of CUPS because of this stupid copyright assignment? It looks to me that such software is doomed to remain crippled as long as companies like Apple are in charge of their maintenance.

There is free software. And there is free software by Apple. And Oracle. And Canonical.

 
 
 
( 30 comments )
(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 12:19 pm (UTC)
if it matters enough make a fork
if this matters enough make a fork. i am sure for something as widely used as CUPS there must be many patches floating around. maybe something like libreoffice could spring out of it. maybe openprinting people would be interested.

dont tools like git, and hosting sites like github and launchpad make it quite easy to follow an upstream project with a few patches added. maybe someone could make a hosting site specifically for non-copyright assigned patches that upstreams wont accept.
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mirabilosmirabilos [mirsolutions.de] on March 15th, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC)
Re: if it matters enough make a fork
I think that forking would hurt, unless there’s exactly *one* outside of Apple. (Yuck. While I don’t use cups, my co-developer does, and tells me that Apple’s version only talks to Apple’s version of it, and uses cups from The MirPorts Framework on his Macintosh instead of Apple’s version…) I think there would be a niche for some “trusted” organisation (or consortium of such organisations) that have a history of not demanding copyright assignment, for management of such forks. Do some publicity too – so others jump on that train instead of forking or not contributing back. Entry barrier should be low, for example when porting applications you don’t want to register a hundred bugzilla accounts, but just submit to a mailing list WITHOUT subscription (or something like Debian’s BTS) feels nice. Maybe Debian could drive such a thing (or SPI even). Not the FSF or FSFE, they have a history of copyright assignments and tend to focus on projects under an FSF licence. No idea what other projects would be eligible (but asking the various BSDs wouldn’t be a bad idea, FreeBSD and NetBSD both have foundations behind them, OpenBSD wouldn’t be a good idea in the management part but probably for code contribution).
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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 09:43 pm (UTC)
Re: if it matters enough make a fork
"I think there would be a niche for some “trusted” organisation (or consortium of such organisations) that have a history of not demanding copyright assignment, for management of such forks."

Distribution licenses are only as strong as their ability to stand on a trial. "Reality check" has sufficiently demonstrated that free/open licenses are abused by third parties and the only way to effectively fight that is by:
a) Being strong enough (which means "money")
b) Being able to fight for it (which means "owning copyright")

That's why the FSF insists in copyright being assigned to them (with a clause of "no evil") and that's why that's the way to go. I'd say that if that's not what you want you'd better distribute your software under BSD terms because that's exactly what you'll get in practice.
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mirabilosmirabilos [mirsolutions.de] on March 16th, 2011 11:18 am (UTC)
Re: if it matters enough make a fork
I do distribute all my software under a BSD licence.

You also miss the point… it’s about collecting patches and manageability.
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rhonda [launchpad.net] on March 15th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC)
And there is GNU
The irony is that the GNU project also does follow that path and requests copyright assignment notes. Actually that's what hinders me to contribute to GNU software because in Austrian legislation there is no such a thing as handing over authorship to someone else.
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np237np237 on March 15th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
Re: And there is GNU
I agree that the FSF’s copyright assignment policy is insane, but it is much less detrimental since it is a not-for-profit.
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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
Re: And there is GNU
Actually that's what hinders me to contribute to GNU software because in Austrian legislation there is no such a thing as handing over authorship to someone else.


If this is true, please contact assign@gnu.org (and cc rms@gnu.org) and explain them so. Hopefully, they will have a workaround such that you can contribute.

Perhaps not the copyright assignment of GNU itself, but the current process is awful, and the worst part of it is that the FSF doesn't realize how much it is hurting the GNU project. Please let them know that it is preventing you to contribute.
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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 09:48 pm (UTC)
Re: And there is GNU
"in Austrian legislation there is no such a thing as handing over authorship to someone else."

Please recheck. If you meant literally, of course there isn't, as there isn't anywhere else in the world: if you made something, you made it and nobody can say otherwise.

If you meant (as I suspect) that you can't pass away the unexclusive rights (which, basically, means authorship) allow me to heavily doubt it. For once it would make impossible to develop software in Austria, since the copyright of the works you develop would belong to you, not your employer.
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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)
Re: And there is GNU
http://www.fsf.org/blogs/rms/assigning-copyright
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chrisjrob.wordpress.com on March 15th, 2011 12:56 pm (UTC)
Difficulty of forking
There's a vast history of failed forks, probably good projects in their own right, but without the community behind them they just go nowhere. Libreoffice was different, it had the support of the vast majority of the major contributors.

That said, I would imagine a company like Redhat could do it, perhaps in conjunction with other major distros.

I really do wish Canonical would learn from Redhat's success and do away with copyright assignment - thank heavens for Debian and Fedora.
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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 01:46 pm (UTC)
Is it time to consider a cups foundation.
This is the solution. Is there enough resources to create a foundation.

libraoffice solution fix the openoffice issue that way.
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Adam Skutt [google.com] on March 15th, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC)
Two Options
Either accept copyright assignment issues, or expect very few companies to open source their code.

Which one is worse for open source is entirely your opinion. I know which one I believe, however.
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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 06:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Options
A small handful of companies require copyright assignment for specific projects. Far more companies work with Open Source and don't require copyright assignment at all.
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Adam Skutt [google.com] on March 15th, 2011 06:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Options
I can think of more major companies with OSS products that require CLA or actual transfer of ownership at least in part, if not in whole, than companies that do not.

FSF does. Apache does. RedHat does. Apple does. Oracle does. Google does. Novell does.

It's important especially in the case outlined above: he almost certainly cannot legally give Apple the code without his employer's permission, since he produced it for his employer on their dime. Even worse, depending on the consultant's contributions, the legal picture might get more murky (but probably not).

That alone is enough reason for any company to ask for a CLA and an indemnification from whomever is giving them the code. The legal defense becomes much clearer in the case of improper rights assignment.

Copyright law probably protects you without it, but few companies are comfortable with a legal strategy of "probably". The CLA provides clear documentation of the transaction, which protects the group accepting the code.

Yes, most of the above want it for their own ends as well, but you could have a CLA that provides them with limited rights.
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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 11:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Options
FSF does. Apache does. RedHat does. Apple does. Oracle does. Google does. Novell does.


You said "companies", which excludes the FSF and the Apache Foundation. (In any case, I didn't know that Apache required that. Obnoxious.)

Red Hat, last I checked, does not require copyright assignment for most projects, with only a couple of exceptions I know of.

Similarly, Google only seems to require assignment for certain projects, such as Chrome.

Oracle's copyright assignments seem pretty much irrelevant at this point; due in no small part to them, one of the most notable projects requiring copyright assignment became the irrelevant version developers don't contribute to anymore.

Now, to give some counterexamples: Intel, Rackspace, Github, Amazon, Nokia, Puppet Labs, most of Google...
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Adam Skutt [google.com] on March 15th, 2011 11:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Options
You said "companies", which excludes the FSF and the Apache Foundation.If you're trying to troll, you need to try harder.

Red Hat, last I checked, does not require copyright assignment for most projects, with only a couple of exceptions I know of.And? You said "don't require it at all", but that's not the case for the major players, whether you're in denial over it or not. Plus, several of the companies you listed generally do not accept code from third parties; they're not even particularly relevant.

Plus, you entirely missed the key point: Apple's insistence on assignment saved them from taking code they almost certainly could not legally receive. Unless np237's employment agreement is unusual, he did not have the rights to give away the code he wrote. AFAIK, even in France, software works are held by the employer by default, so unless he has explicit clauses retaining ownership, he could not legally give the code to Apple. Software is one of the things were the employer nearly universally has ownership, even in jurisdictions where that's not normally the case for other works.

This is precisely why CLAs (or assignment) are a good idea for companies. It's exactly this sort of case, legally, they're trying to avoid.
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np237np237 on March 16th, 2011 08:06 am (UTC)
Re: Two Options
“Unless np237's employment agreement is unusual, he did not have the rights to give away the code he wrote.”

It would help if you did not make assumptions about the work of others.
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Adam Skutt [google.com] on March 16th, 2011 11:06 am (UTC)
Re: Two Options
Then how did your employer enter into it? If you possess the copyright, you can sign the agreement and give the code to Apple legally, and you do not need to even speak to your employer. Since you did speak to your employer about the agreement and did not sign it because you could not find a company officer to do so, the only reasonable assumption to make is that you do not possess copyright.

If you don't want people to assume things, then tell stories that are logically consistent.
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np237np237 on March 16th, 2011 11:09 am (UTC)
Re: Two Options
In short, my employer gives us permission to release the code produced by consultants under a free license. Not to assign its copyright to other companies.
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Adam Skutt [google.com] on March 16th, 2011 11:44 am (UTC)
Re: Two Options
Then why the hell are you lambasting me for assuming things when my assumption was perfectly and entirely correct? You do not own the code, ergo you could not assign the agreement. That means you do not have the rights to give away the code you wrote. The fact you have a license to distribute is entirely immaterial to what I said.

It's dangerous for Apple to receive code from anyone but the owner: if there is a contract dispute between you and those you consult with, Apple's rights to the code (even under the GPL / LGPL) could potentially change as a result of that dispute.

You may not like it, but the situation you just put Apple in is part of the reason they have these sorts of agreements.
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np237np237 on March 16th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Options
You are considering everything from the point of view of a company who wishes to overthrow copyleft in order to publish a proprietary version of the code. Of course, they don’t want real copyleft, they want us to give away the code. This is precisely the problem.
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Adam Skutt [google.com] on March 16th, 2011 01:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Options
Yes, that's precisely why I'm harping on your ownership so much. No, I'm considering everything from the point of view from anyone who receives code from anyone else. Just because you believe it's solely a copyleft issue doesn't mean that's actually the case.

Let's pretend Apple's proprietary version of CUPS does not exist, for the sake of this discussion. You give them the code you wrote, and they accept it and include it in their tree. Much later, you end up in a dispute over the terms of your contract with whomever hired you. In resolving the dispute, it's determined that you never had a license to distribute any code you wrote while working for them.

Guess who else can no longer use the code you wrote? Apple! Now, in the case of your patch, it's probably no big deal: they remove the code and life goes on. But what if the patch were a central part of CUPS and/or difficult to replace with an alternative solution? Now Apple has a much more serious problem.

You can, of course, replace Apple with any group accepting code from others in the above. You do not have to like it, but their desire for assignment is motivated by more than then their desire to create a proprietary version, even if that is their primary motivation. One of those motivations is to ensure that the actual copyright holder has approved the distribution.

Really, if you run any open-source project, you shouldn't accept code from anyone unless they attest that it's their own code or provide documentation from the owner stating they're OK with the distribution under those terms. If you believe anything I've said is concerned with anything else, then you're simply reading what you want to believe (i.e., anyone who thinks I'm wrong must be an maclot) and not what I actually wrote.
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np237np237 on March 16th, 2011 01:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Options
Yes, sometimes a contribution is made without having proper copyright permissions. This can happen to any free software project.

I do wonder how these very small projects like Linux, LibreOffice, GNOME, KDE and Xorg are dealing with it, really.
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(Anonymous) on March 17th, 2011 03:53 am (UTC)
Re: Two Options
You said "companies", which excludes the FSF and the Apache Foundation.
If you're trying to troll, you need to try harder.


Not trolling. You suggested that a lack of copyright assignment would hinder Open Source participation by companies. As evidence, you pointed to various organizations and said that they use copyright assignment. However, the FSF and the Apache Foundation don't really provide evidence that "companies" want copyright assignment, the way that your other examples did.

As for the rest of your response, you snipped pretty much the entirety of my responses to your list of companies, as well as the list of companies I provided that don't require copyright assignment.

And now that I've seen the rest of the chain of responses between you and np237, I think I see your concern now, though I don't agree with it. You suggest that companies can't legally receive code from someone other than the copyright holder, despite the myriad projects that do in fact do so without running into the kind of dispute you suggest. Employers routinely grant employees permission to contribute to Open Source projects, either as part of employment or on their own time (in the case where the employer has any say over what the employee does on their own time). You seem to have an excess of paranoia over the case where the employee needs permission and does not obtain it, or the employer retroactively tries to revoke such permission. However, in practice that situation simply does not arise in the vast majority of Open Source projects, and the adoption of the common "Signed-off-by" convention helps raise awareness of the issue.

Meanwhile, despite your suggestion that companies want this to protect themselves, in most cases they seem more interested in preserving their ability to release a project under a proprietary license, which they can't do if they use a copyleft license and don't require copyright assignments from contributors.

(Interestingly, *that* particular case could still work fine without copyright assignment: just ask contributors to agree that the company may use the code under an all-permissive license such as the MIT license, which then allows the company to relicense without owning the copyright. Not that that improves the situation for contributors.)
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np237np237 on March 17th, 2011 07:19 am (UTC)
Re: Two Options
But with the MIT license, their competitors could do the same as them and release a proprietary version as well. Think what happened to Wine and why they relicensed to LGPL.

What they really want to achieve with copyright assignment is to preserve their competitive advantage over other members of the community.
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Adam Skutt [google.com] on March 19th, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Two Options
Not trolling. You suggested that a lack of copyright assignment would hinder Open Source participation by companies. As evidence, you pointed to various organizations and said that they use copyright assignment. However, the FSF and the Apache Foundation don't really provide evidence that "companies" want copyright assignment, the way that your other examples did.

Except my statement was in rebuttal to yours: "A small handful of companies require copyright assignment for specific projects. Far more companies work with Open Source and don't require copyright assignment at all," which logically opens the floodgates for all groups. Unless I'm supposed to take that statement to imply OSS organizations are more likely to require a CLA or outright assignment. I don't think so that's really what you want to say.

Besides, the reality is that anyone who accepts code from another should do the same, so if it bothers you that much, replace companies in my original statement with, "organizations that can actually afford attorneys and also listen to their advice."

As for the rest of your response, you snipped pretty much the entirety of my responses to your list of companies, as well as the list of companies I provided that don't require copyright assignment.

Because they're plainly not relevant. If I have to explain to why they're not relevant, then I have zero interest in discussing this with you further.

You suggest that companies can't legally receive code from someone other than the copyright holder,

No, I suggest that doing so places you at much greater risk of copyright infringement.

despite the myriad projects that do in fact do so without running into the kind of dispute you suggestAnd? Lighting strikes are rare, should I not lightning proof my home? Or, perhaps more relevant to current events: should the Chileans and Japanese not earthquake-proof their buildings? Just because an event is rare doesn't mean it's not worth considering.

Employers routinely grant employees permission to contribute to Open Source projects, either as part of employment or on their own time (in the case where the employer has any say over what the employee does on their own time). You seem to have an excess of paranoia over the case where the employee needs permission and does not obtain it, or the employer retroactively tries to revoke such permission.No, I have an "excess of paranoia" because the worldwide default state is for the employee to not have permission. As we've seen, taking even seasoned OSS contributors at their word is a bad idea!

Meanwhile, despite your suggestion that companies want this to protect themselves, in most cases they seem more interested in preserving their ability to release a project under a proprietary license, which they can't do if they use a copyleft license and don't require copyright assignments from contributors.

I never suggested it was the sole reason or even the primary reason in this case. Though, it certainly is for other groups. Despite the belief that these things are done exclusively to, "preserve their competitive advantage over other members of the community," that is simply not the case in the least.





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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 10:36 pm (UTC)
Dealing with unfriendly upstreams
(I am saying the following mostly for others --- I assume Joss knows it already. :)) Please do at least submit the patch to the Debian BTS. Till Kamppeter helps out with Debian and upstream cups maintenance and might know what to do with it.

Honestly, that is how forks like go-oo (which became libreoffice) arise in the first place --- downstreams (usually distros) have to fend for themselves and eventually combine forces to avoid some wasted time.
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(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2011 11:38 pm (UTC)
Apple and free software... in the same sentence? that must be a joke for sure.
I'm sure that Apple would be quite sad to ''kill free software''.
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(Anonymous) on March 16th, 2011 01:03 pm (UTC)
GNUspool ?
I doubt it helps, as it's unlikely that one is going to abandon a complicated CUPS setup on the strength of avoiding a small patch, but there is a GNU print spooler, called GNUspool, that might be worth a look. (I helped the author package it for Debian, which is why I know about it :-) )

Cheers, Phil.
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(Anonymous) on September 26th, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
Thought I would comment and say neat theme, did you make it for yourself? It’s really awesome!
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