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Welcome to last century

This is going to be a rant; a particular rant directed toward Free Software Foundation. If you’re one of those self-defined advocates who pretend that Stallman’s smell is worth to be made an eau-de-toilette, then you won’t like my post; I won’t care and I won’t care about your comments. So you’re warned.

I have said before that I have decided to accept Werner’s offer of helping him out with GnuPG by signing the FSF copyright assignment forms — even though their value in Europe is dubious at least. I’m not going to complain about the copyright assignment idea itself; I’m definitely not a lawyer, I barely can deal with the paperwork I deal with on my daily job.

I started having doubts about the whole handling of the copyright assignment to FSF when I was given the first templates by Werner: a text file to mail, including ASCII-reduced name and a home address. I have said many times that in the 21st century, still requiring people around the globe to provide ASCII-reduced names only is at a minimum silly. We’re in a world that is using a number of languages and scripts; and while I agree we should provide a more or less common way to pronounce our names, requiring people to limit their name to ASCII, especially in official contexts. But so it is.

Turns out that the reason why they ask for your home address is not simply to write it down properly in the database, but because they send you snail mail forms to sign and send back. Okay now that starts to feel strange because I have signed quite a few work contracts before, and but for one of them, I both received and sent them as PDF forms. I also signed (a long time ago) a SCA form for the OpenJDK project to Sun; even in that case, emailed scanned documents were just enough.

While strange I expected to follow the usual process: I’d receive two copies of each form, pre-signed by the FSF representative, I’d keep one copy of each and send back the other with my signature on them. Today I received the envelope; there was only one copy of the forms; my name was misspelt (even though I used the ASCII-limited spelling, they dropped the accent!); the forms weren’t pre-signed, just a print out of something that they could most likely have sent me over as PDF, in a much more environmental-friendly way. And one more respectful of the developers who actually ask to have their copyright assigned to the FSF.

Why do I say that? Well, first of all, because the assignment forms make me declare I’m signing off the copyright for “$1 or equivalent goods”… I guess they are referring to the FSF sticker they sent over with the envelope — together with an advertisement for the FSF membership. Okay so this is likely because signing away the rights for nothing is not going to stand up quite well in court, and a sticker is as good as anything when “nothing” is the unusable default. Why should this make me upset?

Well, to begin with, because sending back the signed form is going to cost me more than the nominal $1. But it’s not just that; the paper upon which the forms are printed is a quite high-quality paper. Not just higher than the usual copier paper I use for my own consumption, but also quite higher than what most of the official communications I receive here in Italy. Why using such paper at all?

To be honest, Donnie provided a possible reason: it’s a legal paper so it should be as durable as possible; high-quality paper tends to endure time much better than standard copier paper. On the other hand, if that was the idea, then I guess they should also replace their printer — if they can do that, given that most likely any printer that they could buy has a closed-source firmware on it and they can’t use it. That’s because the two printed forms were put one over the other and then mailed; with the result that part of the text of the topmost was transferred to the one under it. They are still both legible, but gives a hard shake to the “preservation” theory.

Really, even if they need the original signature, why they couldn’t give me a PDF, so I could simply send it to them in two copies, and then they’d send me the counter-signed form with the sticker? Wouldn’t that save us one whole snail-mail trip, a lot of time, and also a bit of paper?

Comments 5
  1. Honestly, my experience with anyone using copyright assignment is that they are completely clueless about international law, and the tricks they added may have made the agreement invalid.For example in Germany, first of all the “copyright” is not assignable. You can give someone a license though. However any contract that gives someone an _exclusive_ license (or any other license that would restrict yourself) requires _adequate_ compensation.I don’t think any court would consider $1 adequate for anything at all, probably not even a single letter change (though that luckily would not be covered by copyright anyway).By mentioning payment they might even lose the special “permission” that “allows” you to give away code for free as long as it is a non-exclusive license (I do not really know though).Well, it might work well enough as long as they never have anything to do with a non-US court.And I guess it’s still better than a certain company asking someone from Europe when visiting one of their sites in Europe to sign an NDA where California law is supposed to apply. Even under US law I have some doubts you can do _that_.

  2. Usually when these sorts of things happen there is a lawyer involved. Where I work I see this kind of stuff all the time.You need to think like a lawyer to understand this. Original paper signatures are something accepted in every court of law in the world. They are also readily subject to forensic analysis, and are very difficult to repudiate. PDFs and even FAXes are not subject to the same kind of analysis, which makes them easier to challenge in court. Newer technologies also do not have a long train of prescedent in court either.Suppose 10 years after you die there is a copyright dispute, and proving that you intended to assign copyright becomes critical to the case. With an original paper signature well-preserved on acid-free paper it would be very difficult to question whether you intended to assign copyright. Whether you are permitted to under local law is a separate issue, and requires different legal mitigation. So, the way that signatures are obtained could have a huge impact on the legal status of a project. If you can’t defend the assignment in court, then there is no point in doing the assignment in the first place.Now, I am not a lawyer, and I’m certainly not an expert in EU law. However, most likely there is a reason for the general approach they are taking. Now, perhaps they aren’t executing on it perfectly, but this is of course a fairly poorly-funded enterprise.I’d love to see a day when paper signatures are replaced by strong PKI/etc, but we aren’t there yet. Paper signatures actually work fairly well for their intended use (proving that somebody committed to a contract), so they are surprisingly difficult to displace. When you look at other signature processes from an FMEA perspective most fancy new technologies actually fall short in many ways, or are a lot more difficult to get right than might be apparent.

  3. Rich, that might as well be, but once again, it’s taking me almost two months to be able to _send a couple of optimisations_. And I’d have to repeat the procedure for any other project I wish to contribute to… And indeed sending the forms over costs me _more_ than $1 (to be precise it costs me $1.16 as of yesterday’s Google quote).Do you really think it is correct for FSF to pretend so much work for all contributors, rather than looking in alternative approaches like KDE has been doing?

  4. that indeed is an irritating behaviour, but what concerns me the most is you have to concede the copyright, not how you have to. Fsf could so well do like mysql, using a gpl&commercial licence alltoghether (making the freedom questionable). and the Gplvx and later sounds a bit suspicious too… sounds to me a bit like communism/based dictatorships, rightful or not if you use community/made stuff the copyright should be property of the community, not yours.For the rest I believe (publicly distribuited) non free software should be forbidden by law -at the very least it should be open source, if not free, just like you can’t put food on the market without telling what’s inside you shouldn’t have right to distribuite software without having the others check how it works- so my position is definitely more radical than fsf’s, but indeed being a foundation half their job should be to make developement easier, definitely not harder 😉

  5. I think that the mistake that you are making is the assumption that the law makes any sense. There is almost certainly a reason why FSF does most of what they do, but that reason will be a legal one. The signed paper forms are a good example of this. Paper is legal, nothing else is.You don’t actually need to do one assignment per change — if most cases the copyright covers past and future changes. I am on my third declaration now, covering about 15 years of (very occasional) contributions. I’ve need three because of changes of employer.It is a pain, though, yes. Compared to fork, patch, pull request. But it is only an occasional cost. Oh, and they do send out PDFs now!

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