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Does All Your Code Belong to Canonical?

Copyright assignment gone wild

  • September 24, 2010
  • By Bruce Byfield
Bruce Byfield

If you believe everything you read on the Internet, then Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu distribution, can't do anything right.

Part of the reason for this attitude is that, because of Ubuntu's popularity, Canonical is under a scrutiny so intense that every fault is magnified. Another part of the reason is that Canonical is visibly struggling with balancing its commercial efforts with being a corporate citizen of free and open source software (FOSS).

However, whatever the reasons, no sooner has the controversy over Ubuntu's contributions to GNOME and other FOSS projects quieted than people are questioning Canonical's contributor agreement, condemning it as a flawed document that misses the spirit of FOSS.

Under the Canonical Contributor Agreement, participants in Ubuntu's development agree to transfer the copyright in their work to Canonical. The controversy is not over the mere fact of the copyright assignment, which is common enough in FOSS development. It�s been been used by -- among others -- the GNU Project, OpenOffice.org, and the Free Software Foundation Europe's (FSFE) Fiduciary License Agreement.

In projects in which everyone is a volunteer, assigning copyright to a larger organization, rather than to individuals can make sense.

As FSFE's Shane M Coughlan told me several years ago, as projects grow in size, "it becomes more difficult to manage the copyright. Some authors might vanish due to accidents, death, or other factors. When it comes to making decisions about protecting the code, upgrading license, or other legal factors, it can become important to talk with copyright holders."

By contrast, in projects like the Linux kernel, in which there is no copyright assignment, managing copyright can potentially become difficult. For instance..."

Read the rest of this Canonical story at Datamation

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