Not All Copyright Assignment is Created Equal

Monday 1 February 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

In an interview with IT Wire, Mark Shuttleworth argues that all copyright assignment systems are equal, saying further that what Intel, Canonical and other for-profit companies ask for in the process are the same things asked for by Free Software non-profit organizations like the Free Software Foundation.

I've written about this before, and recently quit using Ubuntu in part because of Canonical's assignment policies (which are, as Mark correctly points out, not that different from other for-profit company's assignment forms.)

However, it's quite disingenuous for companies to point to the long standing tradition of copyright assignment to the FSF as a justification for their own practices. There are two key differences that people like Shuttleworth constantly gloss over or outright ignore:

  • FSF promises to never make their software proprietary. Shuttleworth claims that All copyright assignment agreements empower dual licensing, and relicensing, but that is simply a false statement if you include FSF in the “All”. FSF promises to never proprietarize its versions of the software assigned to it and always release its versions of the software under Free Software licenses.
  • Non-profits have a different duty to the public. For-profit companies have one duty: to make money for their owners and/or shareholders. Non-profit organizations, by contrast, are chartered to carry out the public good. Therefore, they cannot liberally ignore what's in the public good just because it makes some money. An organization like FSF, which has a public charter that explicitly says that it seeks to advance software freedom, would fail to carry out its public mission if it engaged in proprietary relicensing.

It seems that Mark Shuttleworth wants to confuse us about copyright assignment so we just start signing away our software. In essence, companies try to bank on the goodwill created by the FSF copyright assignment process over the years to convince developers to give up their rights under GPL and hand over their hard work for virtually nothing in return. We shouldn't give in.

I am not opposed to copyright assignment in the least, in fact, I support it in many cases. However, without assurances that otherwise copylefted software won't be relicensed as proprietary software, developers should treat a copyright assignment process with maximum skepticism. Furthermore, we should simply not tolerate attempts by for-profit companies to confuse the developer community by comparing as equals copyright assignment systems that are radically different in their intent, execution, and consequences.

(Some useful additional reading: my “Open Core” Is the New Shareware, Michael Meeks' Thoughts on Copyright Assignment, Dave Neary's Copyright assignment and other barriers to entry, and this LWN article.)

Posted on Monday 1 February 2010 at 12:30 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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