Copyright assignment at the FSF
One of the services the FSF provides to the free software movement is license enforcement for the GNU Project. Our ability to enforce the license on packages like GCC or GNU Emacs begins with a copyright assignment. Put simply, this is the legal transfer of copyright on a program from the developers to the Free Software Foundation. Our copyright assignment program is crucial in promoting our mission “to preserve, protect and promote the freedom to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer software, and to defend the rights of free software users.” The program is as old as the FSF itself; we started it almost thirty years ago in 1985.
Eben Moglen, director-counsel of Software Freedom Law Center, expounds that our copyright assignment program helps with our enforcement of the General Public License (GPL):
In order to make sure that all of our copyrights can meet the recordkeeping and other requirements of registration, and in order to be able to enforce the GPL most effectively, FSF requires that each author of code incorporated in FSF projects provide a copyright assignment, and, where appropriate, a disclaimer of any work-for-hire ownership claims by the programmer's employer. That way we can be sure that all the code in FSF projects is free code, whose freedom we can most effectively protect, and therefore on which other developers can completely rely.
While our assignment program is critical to our work, there are still some common misconceptions. We hope to explain some of the key protections put in place throughout our assignment program to help allay concerns contributors often have when deciding to make an assignment. Sometimes contributors are concerned about giving up rights to their work. As the assignment is a gift to the free software community, they don't want it to come at the expense of having flexibility in the use of their own code. Thus, we grant back to contributors a license to use their work as they see fit. This means they are free to modify, share, and sublicense their own work under terms of their choice. This enables contributors to redistribute their work under another free software license. While this technically also permits distributing their work under a proprietary license, we hope they won't.
Contributors also sometimes have concerns about what is being transferred. While they may be happy to submit some code to a particular package, there may be other elements of their work that they would prefer to keep separate. Free software is of course about freedom, and the freedom to not distribute some code you are working on is integral to that goal. So we frequently get requests to have a more fine-grained assignment contract. As our standard form covers all past and future contributions on a package, some contributors worry about later patches falling under the agreement. There is no need for concern, as our assignment contract already grants the contributor total control over what is transferred and what is not. The assignment requires that the contributor notify the FSF of what code they consider covered by the assignment. The simple and most common method for doing so is to simply contribute the code to the project. Contributors can of course take a more formal path and actually send a letter to the FSF stating which particular files are assigned, but this is much less common.
The copyright assignment program provides numerous benefits to the contributors as well as the community: it allows others to work on the code either to improve, educate, or evolve, while the contributors maintain full rights to their code. Willing contributors can also have their contributions announced in our Free Software Supporter newsletter, as well as being publicized on the FSF's microblog accounts. 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.
While not every GNU Project package is assigned to the FSF, many of the oldest and longest running projects have taken part in the assignment process. By assigning their copyright, the contributors on these projects enable the FSF to keep the software free. We hope we've helped you understand a bit more about this important program, and that perhaps you'll join the thousands of hackers from all around the world who have entrusted the copyright on their work to the Free Software Foundation.