Bringing Some Harmony to Open Source Development

Project Harmony wants to unify contribution agreements, but not everyone sees the value.

When Amanda Brock joined Canonical two and a half years ago, she discovered something rather surprising about open source.

"I have never worked in an an industry that was so self-regulated before," Brock says. From code to licenses, open source projects and companies do a fairly complete job in keeping policies and procedures in line with each other.

Except, it seems, when it comes to developer contributor agreements.

"In this area, not so much," the general counsel for Canonical related to me this week.

The week prior, Brock had just wrapped up the second face-to-face meeting of Project Harmony, a new effort spearheaded by Brock to bring alignment and order to the contribution agreements developers, projects, and business entities sometimes use. Contribution agreements are usually between an individual developer and a larger group, and dictate the terms under which software code is contributed and what the rights of all parties are.

You might assume, like I did, that the license the code will use decides the contribution terms. A license heavily influences the basic outcome of the code, but not necessarily how the code gets there. You know, for example, that code submitted under the GPL will be freely available, but how will that happen? What's the timing of the code's availability to all? Who is the ultimate owner of the copyright? That's why these agreements are sometimes referred to as copyright assignment agreements, as well as copyright license agreements.

And that's before, ideally, figuring out how somebody will be getting paid.

In some ways, proprietary software contribution agreements are a lot easier to deal with: a developer writes some code, a company pays for it, and the developer's code is owned by the company, for all eternity. (Draw your own analogies, if you wish.) But with the wildly different licenses, organizations, and developer motivations that exist in the open source world, it's hard to get standard templates for these agreements created.

Yet, that's exactly what Brock wants to do. When she came on board at Canonical, she saw this situation out in the community and had conversations with then-CEO Mark Shuttleworth--and quickly discovered the truth in the old military adage that if you point out a problem, you are often called to be the solution.

But it was a challenge Brock was more than willing to take on.

There is a lot of ground to cover, as there is much diversity in existing agreements. Though there are some patterns out there. Brock explained that Canonical's contribution agreement is short and simple, and therefore many organizations have adopted it as a template.

Then there is the formation of the Project Harmony group itself. The group has met twice, the most recent meeting taking place at LinuxCon last week. According to Brock, nearly 80 people total have attended these meetings, which right now have focused on the policies and goals of Project Harmony itself.

That in itself will be a significant task. Brock has repeatedly emphasized in public and in our conversation that Project Harmony is open to anyone who wants to participate. That includes some people who have some issues with contribution agreements, such as kernel developer Ted Ts'o, who has openly stated his objections to such agreements.

"In fact, I am very much against requiring copyright assignment agreements (CAA), and tend to view them as being somewhere between 'necessary evil' and 'downright evil'--however, the Project Harmony is open enough that even those of us who don't feel that CAA's are a good thing are welcome to participate," Ts'o wrote in a recent comment on a related LWN story.

Despite his concerns, Ts'o believes Harmony should be given a chance to work through these issues, precisely because it is open.

"Also, anyone can join. So if you want access to the Wiki, just join Project Harmony. Joining does not imply that you are in favor of copyright assignment agreements, or even copyright licensing agreements. I am fairly strongly opposed to the former, and hold a very healthy [skepticism] towards the latter, but I have joined Project Harmony and am participating in its discussions," Ts'o continued.

(To give you an idea of the project's sense of fair play, it should be noted for the record that it was Brock herself who pointed out to me that Ts'o had these concerns.)

Brock strongly believes that only with open dialog and discussion can the question of how to handle contribution agreements can be properly addressed, which is why she wants as many voices in the Project Harmony discussion. For more information on how to join Project Harmony, contact Brock at amanda.brock at canonical dot com.

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