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Assignment University

by jacobson Contributions Published on Sep 19, 2006 01:00 PM
Sometimes universities don't know what's good for them

Although the FSF does not require the assignment of copyright on new GNU project programs, on existing programs where it already holds copyright, the FSF does collect assignments and register copyrights.

Recently, a number of developers have been writing to us here in the copylefts department to see if their university or college can assign[1] its (as in the college's) changes in a GNU project program.

The answer is absolutely.

We welcome university assignments because they allow generations of programmers, often within a department, to work on the same project. That means better programs for programmers to work with and learn from and better utilities for the general public to use. Moreover, the educational mission of most universities is entirely consistent with the Four Freedoms.

The free exchange of knowledge is at the heart of the university experience, and it is as the heart of the GNU project.

That having been said, many universities are reluctant to assign their copyrights to the FSF. First and foremost, this is because many university research departments (typically the arm of a university which controls the copyrights, trademark rights, and patent rights of a university) are ignorant of free software. Often, such ignorance will lead university research departments to initially refuse requests to assign copyright in a given program to the FSF.

Although unfortunate, such reluctance is understandable; universities are naturally slow moving entities, and any change in policy usually has to pass through many administrative layers to get approval. That does not mean we should give up! Sometimes universities need to be told what's good for them.

Without an assignment or a disclaimer, developers interested in free software can be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The FSF cannot accept code that has not been assigned or disclaimed by a university, not necessarily because the university might make an infringement claim, but because in an enforcement situation, someone infringing the FSF's copyright (a GPL violator) might claim that the FSF does not own the code on which it is attempting to enforce the GPL. Granted, there is small likelihood of this happening. However, with so many developers, the FSF has made a point of holding copyright on all of its programs - thereby ensuring that those violating the license will be forced into compliance.

The only recourse for the developer who wants to contribute, then, is to somehow, someway, get that university assignment or disclaimer. That can usually only be done by convincing the research department of the value an assignment has to the university. This can be quite a hurdle, since, as noted, many research departments are new to the idea of free software, and as such, may need to be educated about the merits of software freedom.

Below are some reasons why a university might like to assign copyright to the FSF:

-> University assignment of code allows the university freedom from the burden of protecting the work created by the developers at the university. The FSF accepts copyright so that it can do its enforcement work. Please write to compliance if you see a violation.

-> Once code is written and placed under the GPL, any code based on that code and distributed will also placed under the GPL. Thus, there is nothing a university could do with a developer's code if it is based on previously GPL'd code anyway. There is no good reason NOT to assign code to the FSF.

-> University developers get to collaborate with developers in industry, at other universities, and with individuals all over the world while working on an FSF protected project. Such collaboration helps developers make contacts that the university should like to see its students, faculty and employees making. In a competitive environment, that collaboration would not be possible. Assignment to the FSF allows this spirit of collaboration to take place

-> The goals of the FSF, and most major research universities, are one and the same. Allowing people the freedom to see source code, is allowing people the freedom to learn how a program runs. Such freedom can only lead to a better understanding of computer software; universities, often on the cutting edge of software research, should be glad to encourage such an understanding, since the more people there are who understand code, the more value a university education will take on.

Did we miss something? Feel free to write to us, if you have come up with some other reasons why universities should assign to the FSF. Hopefully university developers will be able to use this page as a resource to help them get the assignments they need to allow them to contribute to the GNU project.

[1] An assignment by a university assigns the university's interest in a program to the FSF, while a disclaimer of rights merely allows an individual developer to contribute to free software without being burdened by a university claim on their work; a disclaimer effectively "dies" when the developer whose work is disclaimed leaves the employ of the university. An assignment is useful when multiple developers, or even a whole lab, are at work on a project together.

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