The Importance of Contributor Agreements

One thing that puzzles me is the resistance within the open source community to contributor agreements. This was brought into focus today when I read that the OpenSSL Project wants to migrate to the Apache 2.0 license from the current project specific OpenSSL license.

In order to do that they need permission from all of the nearly 400 contributors of the project over the last 20+ years, and contacting them will be a huge undertaking. If one person refuses to agree, then they will either have to abandon the effort, or locate that person’s contribution and either remove or replace it.

Many years ago we found out that a company was using OpenNMS in violation of our license. When our lawyer approached them about it, they claimed that they were only using those parts of the code for which we didn’t hold copyright. At that time, early versions of OpenNMS were still copyright Oculan, the company that started the project, and not OpenNMS. Since Oculan wasn’t around anymore it took us awhile to track down the intellectual property, but in the end David and I were able to mortgage our houses to purchase that copyright so that now the project can control all of the code and defend it from license abuse in the future.

But the question arose about what to do moving forward, specifically how should we deal with community contributions? In the past companies like MySQL required all contributors to sign a document with phrases like “You hereby irrevocably assign, transfer, and convey to MySQL all right, title and interest in and to the Contribution” which seemed a little harsh.

I posed this question to the Order of the Green Polo, the de facto project administrators, and DJ Gregor suggested we adopt the Sun Contributor Agreement that we now call the OpenNMS Contributor Agreement, or OCA. This was a straightforward document that asked two things.

First, you attest that you have the right to contribute the code. This is more important than you know, because it helps remove liability from the project should the contribution turn out to be encumbered in some way, such at the author writing it as part of their job and thus it is actually the property of the employer. We allow both individuals and companies to sign the OCA.

Second, you assign copyright to OpenNMS while retaining copyright yourself. This introduces the concept of “dual copyright”. Now some critics will say that this concept hasn’t been tested in court, but there is a long history of authors sharing copyright. Considering that Oracle maintained the agreement in the form of the Oracle Contributor Agreement, it appears that their lawyers were satisfied.

I claim responsibility for the license under which these Contributor Agreements are published: the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. When DJ suggested the Sun Contributor Agreement I noticed that there wasn’t any license on the agreement itself. I didn’t want to just copy it and change “Sun” to “OpenNMS”, so I contacted Brian Aker who had just moved to Sun with the MySQL acquisition and asked him about it. Soon thereafter the Agreement was updated with the license and we adopted our version of it.

Once we adopted the OCA, I was tasked with tracking down anyone who had ever contributed to OpenNMS outside of the company or Oculan and asking them to sign it. They all did, but I can tell you that I had a hard time tracking down a number of them (people move, e-mails change). I don’t envy OpenSSL at all.

I hope this story illustrates the importance of some sort of Contributor Agreement for open source projects. They don’t have to be evil, and in the end getting your copyright and licensing issues completely sorted out will make managing them in the future so much easier.