Finally got myself to listen to a “Free as in Freedom” oggcast (aka “faifcast”), specifically the newest episode 0x06. (I’m not a big audiocast listener normally, to really make it worthwhile I have to be actually listening, and I don’t have a lot of deadtime in my day where my brain is unoccupied such as during a drive commute. When exercising, I generally prefer thumping hip-hop.)
Of the two hosts, I know Bradley Kuhn from around the way and more recently as part of the larger group of voices discussing software freedom all over identi.ca. As a latecomer to this new oggcast and not having heard their previous show, this was my first time listening to Karen Sandler (@kaz on identi.ca). The two hosts have a good repartee, it’s clear why they enjoy doing this together, and they bring excellent information and insight to their topics, which mainly cover policy, legal, and related issues in the FLOSS (free/libre and open source software) world. Sandler is the general counsel at the Software Freedom Law Center, and Kuhn is the Executive Director of the Software Freedom Conservancy. So, it is literally listening to two experts in the field on FLOSS and its legal aspects discuss interesting and relevant topics.
Another reason I was inspired to write this post is in reaction to the latest show, where they discuss the issues and reasons around copyright assignment to appropriate non-profit organizations. In their discussion around copyright assignment, Sandler had some strong points to make about how useful it can be in cases where code needs to be relicensed. (To be clear, I understand their preference is, if copyright is assigned it should be to a non-profit organization, such as the Software Freedom Conservancy, that in turn makes contractual promises not to license the software non-free in the future.)
This topic sparked interest in me because of my own experiences relicensing the Fedora Project’s documentation from the deprecated OPL to the CC BY SA 3.0 Unported license in 2009. In the post I wrote on the subject, “Why relicense Fedora documentation and wiki content“, I discuss clause 2(a) in the Fedora Contributor License Agreement (CLA), which I started referring to as “the nuclear option“, that allowed the project to sub-license contributions to the project under an equivalent or freer license. Since the content we wanted to relicense (sub-license) was all new contributions (as opposed to content from an upstream), it was clearly something that could be sub-licensed under the CLA.
Without repeating all of the reasoning involved, it boiled down to this:
- We achieved a wide consensus from the community that they wanted the relicensing;
- We obtained permission to relicense from all substantive copyright owners (i.e., people who wrote the long guides not just short wiki pages) – even though they all had signed the CLA we considered it crucial that we have actual consensus to even proceed;
- We didn’t bother to contact wiki authors/editors individually, but we did multiple loud announcements to give people a chance to know, understand, and make reasonable objections – it’s important not to surprise folks;
- We used the nuclear option with great reluctance and only after effectively gaining the approval of the community.
This situation was necessary because the OPL we were using effectively put the Fedora Project on a content island, unable to interact with the growing body of freed content under the Creative Commons licenses. The work coincided with the start of a review by Fedora Legal of the CLA overall, which has resulted in work to replace it with a simpler agreement that relies upon the acceptable FLOSS licenses and doesn’t assign these sort of additional legal rights to the Fedora Project.
So, the FaiFcast put me in mind of this situation where copyright assignment wasn’t involved, a different provision in the CLA was able to save us countless hours of work, and yet we were reluctant to use that provision and subsequently removed it from the next generation agreement.
Yet there is still a clause that seems to provide some protection against having to track down thousands of contributors in a future relicensing scenario:
The Fedora Project Board may, by public announcement, subsequently designate an additional or alternative default license for a given category of Contribution (a “Later Default License”). A Later Default License shall be chosen from the appropriate categorical sublist of Acceptable Licenses For Fedora.
Once a Later Default License has been designated, Your Unlicensed Contribution shall also be licensed to the Fedora Community under that Later Default License. Such designation shall not affect the continuing applicability of the Current Default License to Your Contribution.
Read the entire proposed agreement to understand all of the special terms, especially the very narrow definition of “Contribution”. The goal, as I understand it, is to ensure continued freedom for contributed code or content by relying upon a simple agreement between the project and the contributor to use a permissive license now and forever.