Gentoo and Copyright Assignments
A topic that has been fairly quiet for years has roared into life on a few separate occasions in the last month within the Gentoo community: copyright assignments. The goal of this post is to talk a little about the issues around these as I see them. I’ll state upfront that I’m not married to any particular approach.
But first, I think it is helpful to consider why this topic is flaring up. The two situations I’m aware of where this has come up in the last month or so both concern contributions (willing or not) from outside of Gentoo. One concerns a desire to be able to borrow eclass code from downstream distros like Exherbo, and the other is the eudev fork. In both cases the issue is with the general Gentoo policy that all Gentoo code have a statement at the top to the effect of “Copyright 2012 Gentoo Foundation.”
Now, Diego has already blogged about some of the issues created by this policy already, and I want to set that aside for the moment. Regardless of whether the Foundation can lay claim to ownership of copyright on past contributions, the question remains, should Gentoo aim to have copyright ownership (or something similar) for all Gentoo work be owned by the Foundation?
Right now I’m reaching out to other free software organizations to understand their own policies in this area. Regardless of whether we want to have Gentoo own our copyrights or not there are still legal questions around what to put on that copyright line, especially when a file is an amalgamation of code originated both inside and outside of Gentoo, perhaps even by parties who are hostile to the effort. I can’t speak for the Trustees as a whole, but I suspect that after gathering info we’ll try to have some open discussion on the lists, and perhaps even have a community-wide vote before making new policy. I don’t want to promise that – in fact I’d recommend that any community-wide vote be advisory only unless a requirement for supermajority were set, as I don’t want half the community up in arms because a 50.1% majority passed some highly unpopular policy.
So, what are some of the directions in which Gentoo might go? Why might we choose to go in these directions? Below I outline some of the options I’m aware of:
Maintain the status quo
We could just leave the issue of copyright assignment somewhat ambiguous as has been done. If Gentoo were forced to litigate over copyright ownership right now an argument could be made that because contributors willingly allowed us to stick that copyright notice on our files and made their contribution with the knowledge of our policies, that they have given implicit consent to our doing so.
I’m not a big fan of this approach – it has the virtue of requiring less work, but really has no benefits one way or the other (and as you’ll read below their are benefits from declaring a position one way or the other).
This requires us to come up with a policy around what goes on the copyright notice line. I suspect that there won’t be much controversy for Gentoo-originated work like most ebuilds, as there isn’t much controversy over them now. However, for stuff like eudev or code borrowed from other projects this could get quite messy. With no one organization owning much of the code in any file the copyright line could become quite a mess.
Do not require copyright assignment
We could just make it a policy that Gentoo would aim to own the name Gentoo, but not the actual code we distribute. This would mean that we could freely accept any code we wished (assuming it was GPL or CC BY-SA compatible per our social contract). This would also mean that Gentoo as an organization would find it difficult to pursue license violations, and future relicensing would be rather difficult.
From an ability to merge outside code this is clearly the preferred solution. This approach still carries all the difficulties of managing the copyright notice, since again no one organization is likely to hold the majority of copyright ownership of our files. Also, if we were to go this route we should strongly consider requiring that all contributions be licensed under GPL v2+, and not just GPL v2. Since Gentoo would not own the copyright if we ever wanted to move to a newer GPL version we would not have the option to do so unless this were done.
Gentoo would still own the name Gentoo, so from a branding/community standpoint we’d have a clear identity. If somebody else copied our code wholesale the Foundation couldn’t do much to prevent this unless we retroactively asked a bunch of devs to sign agreements allowing us to do so, but we could keep an outside group from using the name Gentoo, or any of our other trademarks.
Require copyright assignment
We could make it a policy that all contributions to Gentoo be made in conjunction with some form of copyright assignment, or contributor licensing agreement. I’ll set aside for now the question of how exactly this would be implemented.
In this model Gentoo would have full legal standing to pursue license violations, and to re-license our code. In practice I’m not sure how likely we’d actually be to do either. The copyright notice line would be easy to manage, even if we made the occasional exception to the policy, since the exceptions could of course be managed as exceptions as well. Most likely the majority of the code in any file would only be owned by a few entities at most.
The downside to this approach is that it basically requires turning away code, or making exceptions. Want to fork udev? Good luck getting them to assign copyright to Gentoo.
There could probably be blanket exceptions for small contributions which aren’t likely to create questions of copyright ownership. And we could of course have a transition policy where we accept outside code but all modifications must be Gentoo-owned. Again, I don’t see that as a good fit for something like eudev if the goal is to keep it aligned with upstream.
I think the end result of this would be that work that is outside of Gentoo would tend to stay outside of Gentoo. The eudev project could do its thing, but not as a Gentoo project. This isn’t necessarily a horrible thing – OpenRC wasn’t really a “Gentoo project” for much of its life (I’m not quite sure where it stands at the moment).
There are in-between options as well, such as encouraging the voluntary assignment/licensing of copyright (which is what KDE does), or dividing Gentoo up into projects we aim to own or not. So, we might aim to own our ebuilds and the essential eclasses and portage, but maybe there is the odd eclass or side project like eudev that we don’t care about owning. Maybe we aim to own new contributions (either all or most).
There are good things to be said for a KDE-like approach. It gives us some of the benefits of attribution, and all of the benefits of not requiring attribution. We could probably pursue license violations vigorously as we’d likely hold control of copyright over the majority of our work (aside from things like eudev – which obviously aren’t our work to begin with). Relicensing would be a bit of a pain – for anything we have control over we could of course relicense it, but for anything else we’d have to at least make some kind of effort to get approval. Legally that all becomes a murky area. If we were to go with this route again I’d probably suggest that we require all code to be licensed GPL v2+ or similar just to give us a little bit of automatic flexibility.
I’m certainly interested in feedback from the Gentoo community around these options, things I hadn’t thought of, etc. Feel free to comment here or on gentoo-nfp.