1. 23
  1.  

  2. 2

    Can someone with a better understanding of copyright assignment explain what the implications of this are? What will it mean practically for companies, individuals and users?

    1. 4

      Before, in order to contribute to GCC you had to give the FSF copyright of your change. Now, you don’t.

      This will make it easier to contribute, since the process of assigning copyright to the FSF is (I believe) nontrivial, and just saying “I assign copyright of this patch to the FSF” doesn’t work. In particular, people who work for companies that claim ownership of their employees’ free-time contributions may be more likely to accept a patch if it doesn’t require signing over their copyright.

      The other change is that this means that relicensing GCC would be harder, since now there are multiple copyright holders to the work. But I don’t think that GCC will be relicensed any time soon.

      The FSF also says that copyright assigntment is important for enforcement reasons, since only the owner of a copyright can enforce it and it’s easier if the entire codebase has a single owner. But in practice… when was the last time you saw any GPL enforcement?

      1. 7

        companies that claim ownership of their employees’ free-time contributions

        The fact that this is even legal is mind boggling.

        1. 4

          You can claim anything you want!

          It’s anyone’s guess whether the claim would hold up in court, so it’s basically a game of chicken. You’re a lot more likely to flinch first vs a million-dollar software company.

          1. 1

            In CA, it’s explicitly illegal to claim ownership unless the free-time contribution relates to the employer’s business. But if you work for a megacorp, they very well might take the position of “our business is everything”.

            1. 2

              I guess my point is that even in California, it’s in the company’s best interest to lie and say that they own everything, because the penalties for making a false claim are lesser than the benefits of intimidating employees.

              1. 1

                Yeah. And worst comes to worst, they can always say “give us this or you’re fired”. I dunno if that’s legal, but I also don’t want to find out.

              2. 1

                So that is the sinister side of letting people work on their own stuff at the office.

                Nice!

                1. 2

                  Oh, this isn’t even at the office. If you work on stuff using company resources/on company time, everywhere in the US will just give that to your employer. This is about stuff you do on your own time at home!

                  1. 1

                    If it came to that I’d start writing incredibly offensive stuff and give them full credit.

                    1. 1

                      Well, then you’d get fired.

                      Though, based on a friend’s anecdote, at least one megacorp is definitely way more likely to sign a copyright release for things related to pornography, and will even require you to not mention their name in connection with it…

                      1. 1

                        glad I don’t care anymore. You can only keep someone threatened and scared for so long.

                        funny how they don’t want that attribution when its seemingly not coinvent. At the same time it’s just begging for ‘rm -rf /’ to be attributed to them under the guise of their legal department.

                        I guess doing something a little more involved than changing twitter icons is a bit much for people these days.

        2. 3

          The FSF requires copyright assignment for two reasons:

          • It lets them change the license at will. When LLVM switched from the UIUC license to Apache 2 + GPL exemption, it required a complex process to get permission from all copyright holders (actually, from almost all and then to rewrite the remaining bits).
          • It gives them standing to sue for copyright violation and to settle violations.

          The first is important if you believe that GCC may wish to move to GPLv4 (or AGPLv3 or whatever) in the future. That may be a concern, but it took 20 or so years for the FSF to release GPLv3, so it’s probably not urgent. Note that the FSF could also unilaterally release the current version of GCC under the MIT license or something equally permissive and some of the concerns from contributors over copyright assignment relate to that: If some company managed to lobby / bribe / stage a takeover of the board of the FSF, then they could release all of the FSF-owned code under a permissive license, against the express wishes of the authors.

          The second one is more interesting. Somewhat ironically, the FSF makes (made?) quite a lot of its money as a purveyor of proprietary software. If a company is caught violating the GPL on any GNU projects, the standard policy for the FSF is to send them a cease and desist letter that gives them a time limit to get into compliance and offers them a time-limited proprietary license for the software from their first violation date until the deadline. If they accept, then they pay the FSF for the license and are now not violating anyone’s copyright and so have no legal liability (as long as they become compliant by the deadline). Compare this with Linux: if you’re violating the GPL on Linux, there are hundreds of people and companies who have standing to sue you and no single entity that has the ability to give you immunity from prosecution if you stop. It’s not clear how much of a problem that is these days.

          In terms of corporate contributions, it is generally quite difficult to get approval to contribute to the assign copyright in a lot of companies. This means that the GPL + copyright assignment ends up being the opposite of what a lot of folks here want from a license: it makes it easy for big companies to use the code but hard for them to give back.

          For individuals, it means you don’t need to send a piece of paper international post to be able to contribute. The FSF never paid me the $1 for my copyright assignment, so I don’t regard it as valid since they didn’t act in good faith (you can’t assign copyright without some recompense in the US, so the copyright assignment form says that they will pay you $1 in exchange). I wonder how widespread that is….

          1. 1

            If some company managed to lobby / bribe / stage a takeover of the board of the FSF, then they could release all of the FSF-owned code under a permissive license, against the express wishes of the authors.

            This concern seems unlikely. The copyright assignment papers you sign for the FSF have some wording that says the one of the conditions of assigning copyright is that the FSF won’t do something like completely changing the license.

            But the most important element of the assignment contract is the promise we make to every contributor and community member: We promise to always keep the software free. This promise extends to any successors in the copyright, meaning that even if the FSF were to go away the freedom of all users to share in the contributions wouldn’t.

            https://www.fsf.org/bulletin/2014/spring/copyright-assignment-at-the-fsf

            Since a weak license like MIT could compromise the freedom of a software package, it seems like it could be in violation of this promise.

            The FSF never paid me the $1 for my copyright assignment,

            Nowadays the exchange is usually a sticker. You didn’t get a sticker?

            1. 1

              Since a weak license like MIT could compromise the freedom of a software package, it seems like it could be in violation of this promise.

              The MIT license is on the FSF list of approved Free-Software licenses, so I think they could justify an MIT-licensed release.

              Nowadays the exchange is usually a sticker. You didn’t get a sticker?

              Nope, nothing. This would have been around 2003ish.

            2. 1

              The first is important if you believe that GCC may wish to move to GPLv4 (or AGPLv3 or whatever) in the future.

              This is really strange; most other projects I’ve looked at from GNU already use a “GPL v$LATEST or (at your option) any later version”. Does GCC omit this? If so, they could add it immediately before accepting the first non-assigned contribution, since at that point it’s still within their power to relicense.

              1. 3

                I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice:

                As I understand it, the ‘or later’ doesn’t allow you to change the license, it just means that you may choose to be bound by only the later conditions. Without copyright assignment, the FSF could have started accepting new code under GPLv3 or later, but would not have been able to release GCC 4.3 with every source file updated to GPLv3 or later. They possibly would not have been able to incorporate GPLv3-or-later patches into GPLv2-or-later files either, though I’m much less sure about that. GPLv2 and GPLv3 were incompatible and so the combination of GPLv2-or-later and GPLv3-or-later is GPLv3-or-later (if you accept GPLv3 for any portion, you cannot accept GPLv2 for any portion).

                Not having to think about this kind of thing except as an intellectual exercise is a big part of the reason that I avoid FSF licenses.