MySQL mistake is a wake-up call on open source ownership

So-called contributor agreements give corporate sponsors of open source projects too much power

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That favored word "contributor" gives a clue to the problem copyright aggregation agreements cause. An open source community is an open, meritocratic oligarchy ruled by an elite who gain leadership based on the merits of their participation and skills, open equally to anyone who does the same in the future. The presence of a "contributor agreement" that involves copyright aggregation may be a warning sign that the community using it has one member who is more equal than all the others.

Communities whose members are termed "contributors" rather than "members" or "participants" may well be unequal places where your interests are subsidiary to those of the copyright owner. They are often dominated by users and fans of the software rather than by co-developers, since the inequality makes it hard or even impossible for genuine co-developers to align any fragment of their interests on equal terms. Indeed, this inequality is seen by some dual-license proponents as one of the attractions of the model as they seek a community of enthusiasts and (hopefully) customers that they can exploit without competition.

Exceptions

There can be justifications for having copyright aggregation by and for a community. When the beneficiary of the aggregated copyright is the community itself (in the case of a community hosted by a nonprofit foundation), there are benefits available that may outweigh the disadvantages. These include giving the foundation the legal right to enforce the copyright in certain jurisdictions, and the freedom to update the open source license later. They may also include the granting of additional rights such as patent licenses in the case where the open source license does not adequately deal with patents, or to help in countries where copyright law is sufficiently different from U.S. law that the U.S.-centric concepts behind open source fail.

Even with these benefits available, many communities choose not to aggregate their copyrights -- notably the Linux kernel, GNOME, and Mozilla communities. The policy and guidelines on copyright assignment by the GNOME Foundation is especially worth reading. Having diverse copyright ownership leads to a deeper mutual trust and an assurance that the playing field remains level. Insisting on copyright aggregation is one of the more certain ways a company can ensure that the open source community it is seeding will remain small and lack co-developers. With the rise of "value add" business models such as Apache-style open core or service subscriptions, it is less necessary for the businesses involved to aggregate copyright.

Some foundations that avoid aggregation (such as Mozilla) do have a document termed a contributor agreement but given the purpose it serves it might be better termed a "participant agreement." This is because it mainly addresses community norms and specifically avoids copyright aggregation. Indeed, some suspect that vaguely using the term "contributor agreement" to describe agreements that also aggregate copyright is a tactic designed to screen the toxicity of copyright assignments from general view.

How to flourish

It may well be advisable to have a participant agreement for your community, to ensure that everyone has the same understanding of and commitment to the project if they are sharing its evolution. But if you want your community to flourish, then you should eschew aggregated copyrights or vest them in a nonprofit entity representative of and open to the community. In fact, avoid any institutional inequality and focused control. Communities should be open by rule.

In my experience, attempting to retain control of a project you're starting or hosting leads to mistrust, contention, and a rules-based focus that diminishes your reputation. Relaxing control will lead to the community innovating and growing in ways you've not anticipated, as well as enhancing your reputation. As I've frequently said (although less frequently been heeded): Trade control for influence, because in a meshed society control gets marginalized whereas influence delivers success.

This article, "MySQL mistake is a wake-up call on open source ownership," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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