A matter of copyrights

One of the issues that came through with the recent drama about the n-th udev fork is the matter of assigning copyright to the Gentoo Foundation. This topic is not often explored, mostly because it really is a minefield, and – be ready to be surprised – I think the last person who actually said something sane on the topic has been Ciaran.

Let’s see a moment what’s going on: all ebuilds and eclasses in the main tree, and in most of the overlays, report “Gentoo Foundation” as the holder of copyright. This is so much a requirement that we’re not committing to the tree anything that reports anyone else’s copyright, and we refuse the contribution in that case for the most part. While it’s cargo-culted at this point, it is also an extremely irresponsible thing to do.

First of all, nobody ever signed a copyright assignment form to the Gentoo Foundation, as far as I can tell. I certainly didn’t do it. And especially as we go along with getting more and more proxied maintainers, as they almost always are not Gentoo Foundation members (Foundation membership comes after an year as a developer, if I’m not mistaken — or something along those lines, I honestly forgot because, honestly, I’m not following the Foundation doing at all).

Edit: Robin made me notice that a number of people did sign a copyright assignment, first to Gentoo Technologies that were then re-assigned to the Foundation. I didn’t know that — I would be surprised if a majority of the currently active developers knew about that either. As far as I can tell, copyright assignment was no longer part of the standard recruitment procedure when I joined, as, as I said, I didn’t sign one. Even assuming I was the first guy who didn’t sign it, 44% of the total active developers wouldn’t have signed it, and that’s 78% of the currently active developers (give or take). Make up your mind on these numbers.

But even if we all signed said copyright assignment, it’s for a vast part invalid. The problem with copyright assignment is that they are just that, copyright assignments… which means they only work where the law regime concerning authors’ work is that of copyright. For most (all?) of Europe, the regime is actually that of author’s rights and like VideoLAN shows it’s a bit more complex, as the authors have no real way to “assign” those rights.

Edit²: Robin also pointed at the fact that FSFe, Google (and I add Sun, at the very lest) have a legal document, usually called Contributor License Agreement (when it’s basically replacing a full blown assignment) or Fiduciary Licence Agreement (the more “free software friendly” version). This solves half the problem only, as the Foundation would still not be owning the copyright, which means that you still have to come up with a different way to identify the contributors, as they still have their rights even though they leave any decision regarding their contributions to the entity they sign the CLA/FLA to.

So the whole thing stinks of half-understood problem.

This is actually gotten more complex recently, because the sci team borrowed an eclass (or the logic for an eclass) from Exherbo — who actually handles the individual’s copyright. This is actually a much more sensible approach, on the legal side, although I find the idea of having to list, let’s say, 20 contributors at the top of every 15-lines ebuild a bit of an overkill.

My proposal would then be to have a COPYRIGHTS.gentoo file in every package directory, where we list the contributors to the ebuild. This way even proxied maintainers, and one-time contributors, get their credit. The ebuild can then refer to “see the file” for the actual authors. A similar problem also applies to files that are added to the package, including, but not limited to, the init scripts, and making the file formatted, instead of freeform, would probably allow crediting those as well.

Now, this is just a sketch of an idea — unlike Fabio, whose design methodology I do understand and respect, I prefer posting as soon as I have something in mind, to see if somebody can easily shoot it down or if it has wings to fly, and also in the vain hope that if I don’t have the time, somebody else would pick up my plan — but if you have comments on it, I’d be happy to hear them. Maybe after a round of comments, and another round of thinking about it, I’ll propose it as a real GLEP.