I'm not interested in your corporate Contributor License Agreements 21 Dec 2018
opinion freesoftware opensource

What an interesting year it has been in the world of free and open source software! Adoption is through the roof and the age old question of “how should we fund this” has come back to the forefront. This year a number of companies have introduced non-open source licenses, sometimes referred to as “source available” licenses. To date I have not seen a single major open source project change licenses. Funded companies which have built ancillary tools and projects around some major open source projects have switched to these curiously un-open licenses. The big heartburn seems to stem from larger service providers taking open source software, turning it into a product-as-a-service, and making money off of that service. All of which is perfectly valid for the use of open source software. The subject of licenses is not one I wish to discuss in this blog post, but rather something which enables these sorts of license shenanigans: the contributor license agreement.

A contributor license agreement is a contract typically made between a contributor and the entity responsible for some body of work. The Jenkins project uses a Contributor License Agreement for core contributions. Originally sourced from our umbrella organization, Software in the Public Interest (SPI), the Jenkins CLA does the following:

  • Asserts that the contributor has the appropriate rights over the work that they’re contributing. As in, they’re not attempting to contribute code which they do not own.
  • Grants SPI copyright license, which helps should re-licensing or license-upgrades be required in the future.
  • Grants SPI patent license, which helps deter patent trolls.

This is all fine. It is actually good. This helps Software in the Public Interest, a 501c3 charitable organization chartered with fostering and growing open source projects, make necessary changes and defend the Jenkins project should the need arise.

On the other side of the coin are for-profit companies which operate open source projects such as HashiCorp, Puppet, Chef, and a number of others, which also require Contributor License Agreemnts (CLAs). In every case which I have seen, these corporate CLAs have identical terms as the Jenkins CLA, including the copyright and patent license grants.

Granting copyright and patent license to a for-profit company, on work which you have done voluntarily is absolutely nuts. This is free work, plain and simple. There is no commitment from the for-profit that your changes will remain open source, or even that the project to which you are contributing will remain open source. The grant of copyright license gives the for-profit company legal clearance to close or completely re-license the source. Unlike Software in the Public Interest, or any one of the numerous other foundations, a for-profit company will never have the fostering of open source communities and projects mandated in its charter.

Absolutely nuts.

I struggle to even imagine of how this arrangement is at all beneficial to a contributor. It just seems like free work, and personally I’m not one for donating my time and efforts to somebody else’s bottom line.

For my personal projects I have started to aggressively license my work as GPL or AGPL, as my opinion of the MIT, Apache Software License, and BSD licenses has soured over the past decade. The specifics of my reasoning I will save for another article. My interest, and time-investment is to “the commons”, the shared ecosystem of freely given, and freely consumed software which raises us all up.

Should you find yourself with patches for a project which requires such an aggressive abdication of your rights, I recommend maintaining a patchset, or lightweight fork of the upstream repository, which thanks to GitHub is significantly easier than it once was.

I have absolutely no interest in working for free, or helping fragment and confuse the free and open source ecosystem. CLAs for projects governed by a transparent free and open source foundation make sense to me, and in a number of ways can help safeguard the future of my contributions. Corporate ones however cannot make any such guarantees.