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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

Contributor Agreements Say Your Contribution Is Unwelcome

As open source usage matures, it's becoming obvious that open-by-rule community means doing things differently.

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The conversation around LWN's coverage of Michael Meeks' talk at the Linux Plumbers Conference (sadly paywalled until now but available today and worth reading all the way through) provoked interesting comments. The subject of the discussion is LibreOffice and the code ownership issues which provoked the fork. Although there are competitive issues involving Novell which Meeks (who works there) doesn't articulate, the comments about the negative impact of contributor agreements are worth taking on board:

Michael mentioned a study entitled "The Best of Strangers" which focused on the willingness to give out personal information. ... Michael said that a similar dynamic applies to contributors to a free software project; if they are confronted with a document full of legalese on the first day, their trust in the project will suffer and they may just walk away.

In the comments, Josh Berkus (a well-known member of the PostgreSQL community) comments:

Open source is now the mainstream for software development. But that doesn't mean that companies who now feel obligated to open source their code in order to complete *like* the idea. They prefer to use open source as a distribution model only, and keep code development internal. It's less work for their engineering staff, less work for their lawyers, and they don't expect outside contributions to be useful anyway.

I have previously written here to distinguish between multilateral agreements that underline community norms, such as the recent agreement published by Nooku, and the agreement my own company uses (which I term "Participation Agreements"), and agreements which lead to one community member gaining extra benefits and status over and above the rest of the community (which I term "contributor agreements"). I believe that, as we move into the era of open-by-rule communities, Contributor agreements will become less and less acceptable.

The valuable point to be gleaned from both Meeks and Berkus here is that contributor agreements are not just a source of inequality in a project but also a recognised flag that participation is neither expected or required. If you're a company hoping to create a new open source project, take heed; that advice you are getting to have a contributor agreement may well lead to you getting no co-developers. As long as that's what you want - well, I suppose that's OK, but intentionally discouraging community is hardly the open source way.

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