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Contributor's Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) guide

by Free Software Foundation Contributions Published on Jul 09, 2021 04:01 PM

What does copyright have to do with computer code?

Computer code is covered by copyright, much like books or movies or photographs. Only the copyright holder on a work is legally allowed to make copies, or prepare derivative works of code, or license the code to others for their use. While proprietary developers use these rights in order to restrict and harm users, free software developers can turn this law to our advantage using copyleft, to ensure that every user can control their own computing.

What is copyright assignment?

A copyright assignment is a legal document transferring the copyright for a particular work. It does not change who the author of the work is, it merely shifts who has the legal right to do activities like make copies of the work, prepare derivatives of the work, and give others permission to do the same. Importantly, the copyright holder is the one with the power to enforce these rights, by going to court and preventing others from violating the license on the work.

Why assign?

Assignment puts us in the best position to be able to ensure that contributions always remain free. It enables us to go to court and enforce the terms of the license on the package. It also allows us to grant additional permissions on a package, such as an exception, if the need should arise. Several GNU Project packages already have such additional permissions in place, and holding the copyright on the packages enabled us to update those exceptions when the package upgraded to GPLv3. Finally, like other forms of contribution agreements, assignment grants us the basic permission to share the work with others under a free license.

Why do I need an employer disclaimer?

When you're employed to do programming, your employer can have very broad claims to code that you write. These claims can even extend to code you may write in your free time, and may cover any patentable inventions, as well as the copyright on the code itself. We require a disclaimer that ensures that your employer won't sue us or other users over the contributions that you make. A lawsuit or legal pressure would be a disaster for any project, especially if the code has been incorporated into the project and distributed around the world.

Why do I need a university disclaimer?

If you are a student, universities can claim your work! Even if the work is not directly related to your studies, a university can make such a claim. Unfortunately, some universities are overly eager to capitalize on the work of their students, so we must be extra careful. The best way to avoid any problems and keep the GNU Project legally sound is to have your university sign a disclaimer, like we do with employers as explained above.

How do I begin the copyright assignment process?

Simply email assign@fsf.org, say hello, and let us know you are interested in contributing to GNU.

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