A blog for the enterprise open source community
Copyright assignment – a little commercial perspectiveMatthew Aslett, November 24, 2010 @ 6:54 am ET
Gather the pitchforks and light the torches. Hordes of marketing men are gathering, intent on invading the free and open source software village armed with copyright assignment policies and turning everyone into mindless corporate contributors. As Michael Meeks (via LWN.net) has warned there is “‘a sustained marketing drive coming’ to push the copyright-assignment agenda” As you read this very post, faceless marketing drones are calling your bosses, spreading pernicious lies about the necessity of copyright assignment policies.
Meanwhile, back in commercial reality, copyright assignment agreements have been a valid, albeit controversial, element of the open source software development for decades. They are used by vendors to protect their rights, some would argue unnecessarily, but are neither new nor growing in usage.
If anything, in fact, there is a growing realisation that the copyright assignment policies have a negative effect on community development and contributions, and that participant agreements and permissive licensing, which ensure more equal distribution of rights, are more successful in protecting the rights of both vendors and potential contributors.
We noted over a year ago that copyright control was increasingly being recognised as a core element in open source-related business strategies and added it to the list of categories against which we assessed 300 vendors for our recent Control and Community report.
We asked 286 open source software users to express their preference for various copyright ownership options. We were not at all surprised to find that 47% expressed a preference for copyright owned by a foundation, compared to just 6% for copyright owned by a single vendor.
What did surprise us was that just 8% expressed a preference for copyright ownership distributed across the various contributors, since that is the model used for many of the most succesful open source projects, including the Linux kernel and the various Apache projects.
We must be careful not to read too much into this, however. Roberto Galoppini is not correct when he states that “respondents don’t like copyright ownership distributed across the various contributors”, but he is correct when he clarifies that “at least they like it no more than copyright owned by a single vendor”.
Apart from anything else, we must take into account the fact that 38% of respondents expressed no preference either way. This is a significant proportion of open source users who don’t care who owns the copyright to the software they are using. Perhaps this perspective may come back to haunt them, but we should not assume that this lack of preference is a vote against vendor-, distributed-, or foundational copyright ownership.
It is also worth noting that copyright ownership was given an average importance rating of 3.1 out of 5, making it the least important of our five factors influencing open source business strategies, according to open source users. Again, this perspective might be short-sighted, but it cannot simply be dismissed.
Another thing that cannot be ignored is the fact that vendor-owned copyright has been the dominant choice for open source-related vendors for the last ten years.
Our research showed that 50% of the 300 vendors assessed own the copyright to the related open source software project, compared with 28% that are involved with projects with distributed copyright ownership, and just 3% with foundational copyright ownership. The remaining 19% are involved with project for which copyright is owned by another vendor or organisation.
While there are valid issues to be raised about copyright assignment policies, it is a bit late to be raising the alarm.
In fact, our research indicates that the formation of vendors around projects for which the copyright is owned by that vendor has been in decline since 2005 (albeit with a slight increase in 2010). By comparison, the formation of vendors around projects with distributed copyright ownership has risen (albeit with a slight dip in 2006) since 2002.
There is no doubt that copyright assignment has its problems in restricting community contributions. Our research indicates that where a vendor owns the copyright for a project, only 29% use bazaar development and just 13% use community development.
That is, in part, why we believe we are seeing vendors re-assess their use of copyright assignment policies and why we have highlighted, as Simon Phipps has, the difference between copyright assignment and participant agreements.
Should developers and vendors alike be wary of copyright assignment agreements? Of course they should. Is there a calculated marketing campaign designed to convince the world of the necessity of copyright assignment? Of course there isn’t.
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