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Copyright assignment with the FSF

by Craig Topham Contributions Published on Dec 05, 2022 11:28 AM

Since 1985, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has promoted computer user freedom through a myriad of campaigns, including the steadfast and demonstrated promise to support the GNU Project. To this end, the FSF holds copyright on the family of GNU General Public Licenses (GPL) and a large portion of the GNU operating system through copyright assignment. We have been doing this work for thirty-seven years. In order to give us the best position to uphold our commitment to the GNU Project, we need contributors to not only contribute their code, but to do so in a way that keeps the GNU Project legally secure. This is accomplished through the FSF's copyright assignment program.

Because the copyright assignment program is so vital, we feel it is an important topic to revisit from time to time and describe what happens when a contributor assigns copyright to the FSF for a GNU package. First and foremost, it is well worth noting that in this process the contributor gives an altruistic yet practical gift to the free software community in the form of free software. Writing code that protects its users' freedoms is truly an act of kindness which benefits all of society, and assigning copyright to the FSF entrusts us to defend and protect such freedoms. Taking the legal steps to keep such freedoms intact is paramount because software freedom is under constant attack. If the opponents of free software had their way, all software would be proprietary and under the control of a select few. It is fair to say that copylefted, free software has made it difficult for those seeking control over users.

Simply put, copyright assignment is an agreement between the developer and the FSF. By entering into this assignment agreement, the developer's rights as author of a work, which are protected by law, are transferred, and the FSF becomes the new copyright holder. The primary driving force behind this approach is that the FSF can defend the copyright in court, if necessary. This is because only the copyright holder is in a legal position to do so. While this approach keeps the FSF in the best position to uphold the GPL, there are a lot of misconceptions around the process and outcome.

Some developers worry that assigning copyright will strip them of all their rights to the code they've created. To address this, the FSF includes a "license grantback" to the developer in the agreement contract. For the developer, a license grantback means they can continue to modify and share their code, and technically, they could even distribute their software under a different license. In other words, by assigning copyright to the FSF, the developer does not give up any of these sorts of rights.

Another common concern among developers pertains to what exactly is being transferred. The agreement contract makes clear that the author's copyright for changes and/or enhancements to a specific GNU package is what is being transferred, and nothing else. However, the ultimate decision to submit code is firmly left in the hands of the contributor. When the contributor submits code to the GNU Project, this fulfills the requirement to report the changes and/or enhancements covered by the agreement with the FSF. If the contributor decides not to submit their changes and/or enhancements to the project, then the agreement does not apply to that code. What the copyright assignment does not do is force the developer to contribute all code they write. Although it is very rare, the contributor may also send a physical letter enumerating the assigned files to the FSF if they wish to be more formal or specific.

Free software is under constant attack, which is a warning worth repeating. One very real, and very concerning, vector for such an attack is when an employer claims the outside work of their employee, or when a university does the same with a student. The last thing anybody in the free software community needs is an army of well-paid lawyers from a large corporation or university pulling apart code and making copyright claims. In order to prevent this, the FSF requires employer disclaimers from contributors employed to program, and university disclaimers from students enrolled in a university. These help remove the danger of proprietary claims on a developer's contributions to any GNU packages. Although assigning copyright for a specific GNU Project package is a one-time process, a contributing developer may have several jobs throughout their career; therefore, it is important for the developer to get an employer disclaimer in place when starting any new programming job.

I hope this article broadens your understanding of the FSF's copyright assignment program. With this knowledge, I also encourage you to join us and the thousands of hackers around the world who have placed their work's copyright and their trust with the FSF. With the community's contributions securely under the FSF's protection, the FSF can keep a vital promise which is also contained within the agreement: we will always keep the software free.

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