Anatomy of Copyright Assignment

Courtesy: The 451 Group

Simon Phipps has published an interesting post today examining the issue of contributor agreements and copyright assignment.

This is an issue that has been thrown into focus by the recent debate about the open core licensing strategy, and the disagreement between NASA and Eucalyptus Systems, and is likely to remain significant thanks to Project Harmony.

Simon’s post is an interesting introduction to the topic but is particularly important, to my mind, as he has attempted to differentiate between agreements that require copyright assignment to a controlling organisation (which Simon refers to as “contributor agreements”, and those that do not (“participant agreements”).

It is important to make the distinction as it is the contributor or participant agreement that defines the terms of the relationships among the developers of a project, and whether such a community exists at all.

It is rare to find someone making the distinction but it is important to do so because, as I have found from experience, it can lead to confusion: I was surprised on one occasion to find someone disagreeing with my assertion that contributor agreements were controversial, until it became clear that they were thinking of participant agreements.

However, it is also important not to assume that contributor agreements are automatically bad, just because participant agreements are automatically good.

As we previously noted, “copyright control has a symbiotic relationship with both the open source software license and the development strategy, and is influential in determining both the end user license strategy and therefore the choice of revenue trigger”.

Clearly copyright assignment is integral to the dual licensing and open core licensing strategies in enabling those vendors to sell closed-source licenses to the core project and extensions, and it does restrict developer communities in those situations.

However, as Simon briefly explains, copyright assignment is equally used by other organisations, such as the Free Software Foundation, to protect the core project. Glyn Moody described the potential benefits of such an arrangement earlier this week, while Tarus Balog provides another example of copyright assignment protecting an open source project.

That is why, in our assessment of open source-related business strategies, we make a distinction between copyright that is owned by (and assigned to) a vendor, copyright that is owned by (and assigned to) a foundation, and copyright ownership that is distributed amongst participants.

While I totally agree with Simon that relaxing control over a project enables the benefits of true community development, copyright assignment needn’t negate those benefits entirely, and we should be wary of lumping contributor agreements in the same bucket as open core.

That said, the differentiation between contributor agreements and participant agreements is a good start.

Other links:

Copyright assignment in the wake of myOracle

“Which Open Source License” is the Wrong Question

Some Thoughts on Copyright Assignment by Michael Meeks