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Re: Contributor agreements and copyright assignment

On Sun, Dec 02, 2012 at 11:58:55AM -0800, Russ Allbery wrote:
> >> The FSF is bound by its bylaws.

> > So are most corporations.

> Depending on how much you trust US law (and depending on the state in
> which the non-profit is formed), there is a fairly substantial difference.
> Board members of non-profits can be held personally legally liable to the
> public for running the non-profit "in the public interest," and there is
> some oversight by the state attorney general that the non-profit is really
> being run according to its mission and bylaws.

One of the things that bothers me whenever this discussion comes up is that
people seem to assume that non-profits are not only ultimately trustworthy,
but also inviolable.

Even if you have complete confidence in the (present and future) governance
of the FSF, non-profits are not immune from lawsuits.  And the FSF happens
to be engaged in an activity that exposes it to certain liability:
distribution of software, which may infringe any number of patents in the

If $evilcorp decides to sue the FSF for patent infringement, and secures a
judgement against the FSF that's worth more than all the FSF's assets, what
prevents the bankruptcy court from assigning all copyrights to $evilcorp and
thus giving them full control over future licensing of the work?

The answer, as it happens, is the very terms of the FSF's copyright
assignment, which ensures the work remains available under a copyleft
license.  *That* is the gold standard for copyright assignment, by which
other copyright assignments should be measured, not by whether the
counterparty is a for-profit or non-profit corporation.  It's this which
protects us against the threat of EvilRMSBot replacing the genuine article,
or EvilCorp taking the FSF's assets and leaving the bylaws.

Canonical's CLA terms are not identical to the FSF's copyright assignment,
but they attempt to strike a similar balance.  I think the CLA ought to be
judged on that basis.

Steve Langasek                   Give me a lever long enough and a Free OS
Debian Developer                   to set it on, and I can move the world.
Ubuntu Developer                                    http://www.debian.org/
slangasek@ubuntu.com                                     vorlon@debian.org

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