Phil Bull (philbull) wrote,
Phil Bull

Guest Post: Laura MacPhee on the Canonical Contributor Agreement

I've been finding it difficult to balance my work on the GNOME and Ubuntu documentation recently. Apart from the usual lack of time, the increasingly divergent directions of the two projects have seemed difficult to reconcile in the help we provide. Ubuntu has always customised GNOME, but with the recent announcement that Ubuntu 11.04 will default to Unity rather than the new GNOME shell, I think we may have lost a great deal of the practical documentation compatibility between the two. This is a shame, because the differences between shells are really only superficial. Unfortunately, details matter in user help.

It's another "divergence" altogether that looks set to cause the most serious problems, though. A bug report was recently raised requesting documentation for Unity. So far, so good - it's a perfectly sensible subject for the Ubuntu docs team to handle. However, it seems that the docs can only be accepted into Unity itself if we sign the Canonical Contributor Agreement, which assigns copyright to Canonical. We could provide documentation for Unity and keep it in the ubuntu-docs package (or a standalone unity-docs package), which isn't subject to the agreement, but that would make it more difficult for the Unity docs to be used upstream. There's also the risk that Canonical will want to distribute docs under an incompatible license and so would simply rewrite them, invalidating all of our work.

Personally, I don't want to sign Canonical's agreement. I want to share my writing, not give it away. Other team members seem to feel the same. So where does this leave the Ubuntu docs team?

I've invited my good friend (and favourite legal expert) Laura MacPhee (Twitter, LinkedIn) to write about the issue. Laura has a BA in Jurisprudence from the University of Oxford, is a contributing author of Scots Law for Journalists (8th Ed.), and currently writes for the Open Rights Group. Note that she's writing here in a personal capacity.

Laura MacPhee on the Canonical Contributor Agreement

Ideological conflict has carved the pathway of human experience. Imagine how different history would be without it. There would have been no crusades. Northern Ireland would have been relatively untroubled. The Mitfords would have been an unremarkable aristocratic family. In reality individual philosophy is a very powerful force, which now looks set to define the future prosperity of Canonical.

I am, of course, referring to the controversial agreement which Canonical requires its contributors to undertake. The crux of the issue can be seen in the first term:

I hereby assign to Canonical with full title guarantee all copyright now or in the future subsisting in any part of the world in any Assigned Contributions.

In assigning the copyright in one’s work under an agreement like this one, the contributor essentially loses his ownership in the work. The issue of ownership is a deeply emotive one which is connected to our sense of self-worth and achievement. Most contributors can surely relate to the Lockean theory of property, whereby a creator is entitled to “the work of his hands”.

The broad scope of the licence granted by Canonical means that this is a philosophical problem rather than a prima facie practical barrier. This is not an uncommon business model, and makes commercial sense for the company. However, this benefit must be weighed against the cost. In this case Canonical risks undermining its own vision of a community-oriented project as well as contravening the open source philosophy as a whole. This dimension of Canonical’s philosophy is very attractive to contributors and should not be dismissed so casually.

This form of this agreement creates a clear divide between the contributors who produce the code and the company which owns the rights to it. This reflects more traditional ideas of corporate hierarchy; and conflicts with the community-oriented ideals Canonical purports to espouse. This has provoked a wave of unrest amongst contributors. They are disappointed by the wording of the agreement.

The sixth term presents a particularly contentious point:

Canonical will ordinarily make the Assigned Contributions available to the public under a "Free Software Licence"... Canonical may also, in its discretion, make the Assigned Contributions available to the public under other license terms.
There is no guarantee that these “other licence terms” will not be proprietary terms. Indeed Canonical seems to foresee this as a possibility. This prospect is understandably abhorrent to most open source contributors. They may choose not to contribute to a project which operates in this way, producing a de facto chilling effect.

Naturally, this would be very detrimental to Canonical, who should prioritise a review of their contributor agreement. Open source is more than a methodology, it is an ideology. Its aficionados are unlikely to submit to such an affront to their beliefs, and nor should they.

Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. An Eastern guard speaks to a Westerner through a broken seam in the wall. Both were smiling, representing the jubilant spirit of the day. Sharon Emerson, released under a CC-BY-SA license.
Image: Sharon Emerson. Released under a CC-BY-SA license.

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