Ubuntu copyright assignment

Bradley M. Kuhn bkuhn at ebb.org
Tue Jan 19 20:37:41 GMT 2010

Elliot Murphy wrote at 17:57 (EST) on Monday:

> The difference is that they are projects that Canonical employees have
> written, Canonical has copyright on 100% of those programs and wants
> to maintain that. Canonical would not try to take over copyright for
> projects that already existed, and the current policy is that we ask
> for copyright assignment for contributions to projects that we already
> have 100% copyright on.  I'm not arguing for or against copyright
> assignment (it's a complex topic)

It is indeed a complex topic.  Collecting copyright assignment can have
some benefits, and I have often been on the other side of this argument
going back to my FSF days. FSF does indeed require copyright assignment
on projects it originated if you want your patches accepted in the
canonical (note small-c) versions.

The key difference between FSF's and Canonical's assignment process --
which in fact makes *all* the difference -- is that FSF promises as part
of the copyright assignment contract to always and forever release all
versions of the software as free software and only free software.
Indeed, FSF is always looking for ways to make that promise even
stronger, and it has gotten stronger over time in 20 year evolution of
FSF's copyright assignment form.  Additionally, as a chartered
not-for-profit corporation with a defined mission to advance the public
good, FSF would be in breach of its corporate duties if it took any act
that was not deemed to advance software freedom. (Canonical, as a
for-profit company, does not have such a duty.)

My criticism is fundamentally that Canonical is not merely asking to be
the steward of the copyright, but is also asking for special and
exclusive rights.  Canonical does not make the promise that it (and its
successors and licensees) will never proprietarize the copyrights
assigned to it.  Canonical asks developers to give up all their rights
and offering them almost nothing in return.

Copyleft licenses like GPL only work when people are actually bound by
them.  The community and the world as a whole is bound by the GPL (or in
the case of Launchpad, AGPL) when Canonical publishes software.  Thus,
Canonical will not have its rights under copyleft usurped.  However,
every time a developer makes an improvement to a Canonical package, that
developer faces the horrible choice of giving Canonical special and
exclusive rights to proprietarize that contribution or not getting their
patch accepted into the [Cc]anonical version.  All individual developers
are deprived completely from the benefits of copyleft, while Canonical
is the only entity to receive the benefits.

It's unfair and not in the spirit of software freedom for Canonical to
put developers into this position.  If Canonical feels that copyleft
systems are good for its business and software in general, why is
Canonical afraid to be bound by copyleft terms on the software it

Matthew East wrote at 08:05 (EST):
>> However what I'd really like to be able to understand is *why*
>> Canonical wants to maintain 100% copyright in these projects. What the
>> faq page currently says is:

>> "Canonical both uses and distributes software around the world. We
>> need to make sure we are legally entitled to do so with contributed
>> code, in a way that will hold up everywhere."

I believe the quoted text above is a specious argument on Canonical's
part.  The GPL has already been shown to work well around the
industrialized world, and it is known particularly to work well in any
country that has signed various international copyright agreements
(e.g., Berne convention).

Also, this argument ignores the fact that Canonical could make their
assignment form like FSF's: offering a clear promise back that they will
never proprietarize the work.  Such a promise would still address the
concern quoted above while addressing the issue I'm raising as well.

Finally, I should note that Canonical is merely the newest company to
sadly take this policy position.  There are many for-profit companies
that require copyright assignment to projects they originated and have
similarly distasteful policies.  I don't single Canonical out in this;
it only came up in this context because it was on a list of reasons I
publicly posted about switching back to Debian from Ubuntu.

[ BTW, I am not sure on the list policies of ubuntu-devel.  I was cc'd
  on this thread but am not a list subscriber.  I'm happy to discuss
  this on ubuntu-devel, but I unfortunately don't have time to subscribe
  to another list.  I apologize in advance if non-subscriber posting is
  frowned upon here. ]

   -- bkuhn

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