Third dimension of the open source incline is copyright

Summary:A programmer who assigns copyright to a corporate entity may be no better off than an unpaid employee for a proprietary project.

One of the earliest think pieces I did here was the Open Source Incline.

The idea was that the more equal your license made a project sponsor and the contributor, the more contributions you might generate.

Later I updated this concept with the Open Source Development Incline.

I suggested that the nature of the sponsor has an impact on contributions, regardless of license. True community-driven projects had an advantage over corporate-run projects.

What Simon Phipps' latest did for me was put in perspective the third dimension of the open source incline idea.

That dimension is copyright.

Whether copyright is assigned to a project, and under what terms, is an increasingly important question for code contributors.

At ApacheCon I learned, for instance, that Apache doesn't require it be assigned copyright on contributions at all. At the other end of the incline are those which, as Phipps notes, have contributor agreements that actively discourage outside participation.

This question becomes increasingly important when we look at the Oracle suit against Google over Java.

It's not just a patent complaint. Oracle says Google violated its copyrights as well, and this may be one of the strongest aspects of Oracle's case.

However, it brings the question of copyrights to the fore. Many contributions were made to Java, to Sun, by independent programmers who were pressured to assign their copyright to Sun, under what amounted to a verbal promise that everything would work out.

Well, everything did not work out. Oracle now seeks to use those copyrights as legal weapons, in order to maintain control of the underlying software.

In this view, a programmer who assigns copyright to a corporate entity becomes no better than an unpaid employee for a proprietary project. They could, in theory, be denied access to the code they wrote, depending entirely on the whim of the company they assigned it to (or the company which buys that company, etc.)

This whole issue obviously puts projects like Apache, which don't require copyright assignment, in a better position vis a vis corporate projects licensed under the GPL.

And my guess is it will get a lot of programmers demanding their own copyrights in the future.

Topics: Open Source

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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