back to article Open-source projects glibc and gnulib look to sever copyright ties with Free Software Foundation

The GNU C Library (glibc) and GNU Portability Library (gnulib) are laying the groundwork to divorce themselves from the troubled Free Software Foundation by removing the requirement for copyright assignment. This move follows in the footsteps of the same shift by the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) on 2 June. Like many projects …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why assign copyright?

    It may be pertinent to note why anyone would have assigned their copyright to the FSF in the first place:

    https://www.gnu.org/licenses/why-assign

    > Under US copyright law, which is the law under which most free software programs have historically been first published, there are very substantial procedural advantages to registration of copyright. And despite the broad right of distribution conveyed by the GPL, enforcement of copyright is generally not possible for distributors: only the copyright holder or someone having assignment of the copyright can enforce the license. If there are multiple authors of a copyrighted work, successful enforcement depends on having the cooperation of all authors.

    > In order to make sure that all of our copyrights can meet the recordkeeping and other requirements of registration, and in order to be able to enforce the GPL most effectively, FSF requires that each author of code incorporated in FSF projects provide a copyright assignment, and, where appropriate, a disclaimer of any work-for-hire ownership claims by the programmer's employer. That way we can be sure that all the code in FSF projects is free code, whose freedom we can most effectively protect, and therefore on which other developers can completely rely.

    So, if you care about people actually obeying the license, and don't want to bother engaging with infringement legal action yourself, copyright assignment to the FSF may be advantageous to you. Personally, I don't see any of the FSF board's recent actions as impinging on their ability or intent to defend and enforce Free Software licenses.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Why assign copyright?

      In practice, this is not required to pursue copyright claims. An owner of some of the copyright has a claim to litigate copyright violations of the entire thing, but if that argument is deemed insufficient, they can litigate the parts they own, without which the rest doesn't work, and obtain the same result. Having multiple copyright holders can help here because the FSF itself wouldn't have a monopoly on deciding whether some use was acceptable or not, so people considering violating would have to stick to the GPL more clearly.

      I agree that the FSF is likely to continue to enforce the licenses as they already have done--Stallman is not the kind of person who would want more lax licensing. Still, I don't think the policy is at all necessary, so if projects choose to change the policy in order to indicate their feelings about unrelated FSF decisions, I see no harm in it.

      1. cornetman Silver badge

        Re: Why assign copyright?

        I believe the point being made was that ordinary lay people do not generally have the will, resources or knowledge with which to defend their copyright in practise. It is not a question of whether it is possible. It is a question of expediency.

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          Re: Why assign copyright?

          The point is that the FSF retains the ownership they already have, so they could enforce the copyright on that without having to own the rest. Diluting the copyright doesn't impact their ability to enforce the license because they own some. It also enables others should one of them choose to do it.

      2. Alan Mackenzie

        Re: Why assign copyright?

        "Still, I don't think the policy is at all necessary, ....."

        Oh you don't do you? Are you a lawyer experienced in the field of copyright? If not, what you think about the policy is of no consequence and no value.

        Before instigating the policy of copyright assignment, the FSF took advice from such experienced lawyers, and doubtless get such advice revised at suitable intervals.

        Those who dislike the idea of Free Software will be rejoicing at these moves - damaging Free Software as part of a personal vendetta against Richard Stallman by an unthinking hate mob.

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          Re: Why assign copyright?

          I am not an expert lawyer, but neither is Stallman. Maybe neither of us is worth anything.

          Or maybe, since I do write code and license it, and I have read up on the licenses, and I might decide whether or not to use certain licenses or assign copyrights, my opinion and those of the people like me who also write the code involved has some value after all.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Why assign copyright?

            > I am not an expert lawyer, but neither is Stallman. Maybe neither of us is worth anything.

            Indeed, however the explanatory paragraphs quoted by the OP were not authored by Stallman, but by "Professor Eben Moglen, Columbia University Law School".

            1. doublelayer Silver badge

              Re: Why assign copyright?

              Indeed it was, and I'm sure he did his best to ensure the FSF could enforce their license. When they instituted that policy, the license hadn't been thoroughly tested, and therefore they wanted to take every effort to make sure it would work. Among those was the assignment of copyright--if the FSF owned it all, then they could change to something else if the GPL proved flawed when the courts looked at it. I have no objection to that plan when it was instituted, nor do I object to continuing to assign copyrights to the FSF.

              What I do object to is the idea that this is required for the GPL to have legal significance. Unlike 1990, the GPL has been tested in court and it works. Non-GNU projects have verified that it works without copyright assignment, with Linux being the most famous example. Hence my statement that, if the project leads choose to change the policy, it won't harm the freedoms allowed by the GPL. That doesn't mean I think it should happen, just that it can without collapsing. The responses to this have included a dearth of detail, yet are very vigorous. Perhaps the adherents of the FSF haven't considered what the GPL is for, but they seem to think it's a house of cards which will be useless without the FSF. The people who wrote it were smart enough that it isn't.

        2. gnasher729 Silver badge

          Re: Why assign copyright?

          Richard Stallman is a dinosaur. He was a dinosaur 20 years ago. And he's a dinosaur with a questionable attitude to women, children, and the stuff between his toes. I don't have any vendetta against him, I just wouldn't want to be associated with any organisation that he is part of, as a married man, father and grandfather. And as myself. And my wife wouldn't allow me to be associated with any organisation that he is part of.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why assign copyright?

      Would part of the purpose of assigning copyright to a central organization be that the author could not later withdraw authorization for its use? I'm remembering a fairly recent issue where a programmer withdrew his software package, leading to a large number of dependent software not functioning.

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: Why assign copyright?

        I would guess that this is a part of it (i.e. prevent someone withdrawing their submission and expecting that to be honored). But I think the "work for hire" concept would be more practical.

        * as a contributor, you are "working for" the project

        * As 'work for hire', the project has ownership

        * They can, and should in my opinion, allow you to also distribute things on your own terms that are derived from your work [but I don't think this is part of it] to avoid YOU being sued later if you copy/pasta your own code into some other project

        * They are free to license it consistently with the rest of the project (as owners)

        In short, you gave them the contribution, so it's theirs now. Plus, if you GPL it, a derived work can always be made from the source (so no withdrawing it later).

        So yeah, that and IANAL and my understanding of these things is limited to my own experiences.

        (I think most contributions take the form of patches to existing things, though I somewhat recently contributed a userland application to the FreeBSD project - it may still have my copyright but it is under a BSD license anyway. It had to meet their somewhat tough standards, too, or they would not accept it)

        1. Jamie Jones Silver badge
          Trollface

          Re: Why assign copyright?

          Bob you commie! :-)

      2. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Why assign copyright?

        The license already does that. An author who releases something as GPL can't unilaterally change the license because they've already released it. They can release it under a different license if they wish, and they can refuse to send the code to you anymore under the GPL. If anyone else has a copy though, they can edit it or publish it without limitation.

        The issue with the people who pulled packages wasn't that the code couldn't be resurrected. The issue was that people were downloading the package and the downloads broke. Similar to what would happen if you were pulling something from a public server I ran and I shut it down. All they had to do was change the download location to somewhere where the packages could be found and things worked again.

    3. mihares

      Re: Why assign copyright?

      So, effectively, arethe decisions og GCC, glibc and gnulib going to significantly weaken the GPL that covers them?

      Looks like that.

      Genius.

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Why assign copyright?

        No, they don't. I've already commented on why above. What they will have is the same style of protection which the Linux kernel has had for almost all of its existence, which has been fine.

    4. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Why assign copyright?

      They would say that, wouldn't they?

      In practice, the assertion of copyright as per the 3-clause BSD licence has been observed for decades.

  2. HildyJ Silver badge
    Linux

    Why fix what ain't broke?

    The free software system of copyrights and licenses seems to have been working for years.

    The idea of 'my work, my copyright' is what the broader copyright system is is based on.

    If the FSF could point to an incident where it didn't work, I'd understand this move.

    As it stands, I not only have to ask 'why?' but also 'why now?'.

    1. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: Why fix what ain't broke?

      When I came to the bit about Stallman getting criticism for defending Minsky, 17 year old girl, Epstein and so on I figured that there might be a process under way to destabilize one of the foundations of the open source movement. We're all aware about how social media is now used to foment grass roots culture, its actually quite a big business in the US, it uses outrage as an emotional trigger to motivate people for all sorts of reasons, both political and commercial. I'd be careful of being manipulated.

      I daresay I'll now get a lot of crap about being a pedophile or whatever. This is how these things work -- you pick emotive subjects where its difficult to formulate defenses, ones where if you're not demonstrating openly your moral outrage then you're obviously one of them. But just to give you some perspective, back when I was a young person the 'age of consent' was 16 in the UK (and we didn't have statutory rape laws like in the US). Times change, attitudes change. I personally regard the Episein private island culture as abhorrent, its not how I was brought up, but this has absolutely nothing to do with compiler library support or copyright assignment.

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        Re: Why fix what ain't broke?

        I agree that Stallman's comments about Minsky, etc. are not relevant. Stallman has been criticised by his peers for years for his actions, including a complete lack of tolerance of different opinions regarding what is and is not open source.

        There is no doubt that he made a considerable contribution both in terms of code and advocacy. But the world has moved on the since the turn of the millenium and we're no longer fighting battles with AT&T, SCO, etc.

        1. cornetman Silver badge

          Re: Why fix what ain't broke?

          I don't know if the battle is quite won yet. It has merely changed its face.

          Many people just don't understand that the battle was never really about whether or not you could see the source. It was about freedom. Freedom from companies that want to control and manipulate you. Companies used (to a lesser extent now) software to control. Now we have web facilities attempting to do the same. I despair when I see figures proclaiming the that fight has been won because companies are "embracing" open source. The source is not the point, it is about freedom and we will *always* have to fight that war.

          You don't have to use Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon etc, but they are becoming so embedded in our society that to entirely avoid them comes with a price. Such is the societal power that these companies wield.

          As such, what Richard Stallman has to say about freedom is as relevant today as it ever was.

          1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

            Re: Why fix what ain't broke?

            1968 has just called and wants its slogans back…

            I've always been against the politicisation of software. The first real open source was the Berkley Software Distribution and it was treated very much like a scientific thesis. Then along came Stallman and the FSF and tried to ruin it for everyone.

            1. cornetman Silver badge

              Re: Why fix what ain't broke?

              > I've always been against the politicisation of software.

              It has always been the case that those that value their freedoms the least are the ones that are privileged to have them. Software is just one arena where freedom is fought which is why when Rishard Stallman talks about freedom, it is not specifically about software. It worries that so many seem to listen to the message, yet get so superficially little from it.

              You're free to hold that view. Despite that, I, Richard and many others will defend your tenuous freedoms.

      2. jtaylor Bronze badge

        Re: Why fix what ain't broke?

        "I personally regard the Episein private island culture as abhorrent...but this has absolutely nothing to do with compiler library support or copyright assignment."

        At a technical level, I agree. More generally, though, I think this raises questions about the judgement of the FSF leadership. And about the FSF culture.

        A friend did an internship at the FSF in the late 90's. She didn't stay long. She mentioned privately that RMS's behavior towards her (and, she learned, other young women) was unbearable.

    2. HildyJ Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Why fix what ain't broke?

      I'm a user, not a developer, of the software in question and copyrights I have dealt with involved books, not software.

      I am genuinely curious about this situation, which apparently merits downvotes, possibly from both sides.

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