why proprietary relicensing is unacceptable for a Free Software enthusiast

The past few months have witnessed a large debate about copyright assignment, which seems to has neared its peak around the time Project Harmony has released version 1.0 of its agreement templates. (Note: I use the expression "copyright assignment" in this post, but I'd happily include into it both actual Copyright Assignment Agreements — CCAs — and Contributor License Agreements — CLAs, as both could be used to permit various forms of proprietary relicensing.)

Mark Shuttleworth has been one of the most prominent voices campaigning in favor of copyright assignments (to for-profit companies). A couple of interesting blog posts of his where this is evident are "On balancing economic power in the FLOSS ecosystem" and "The responsibilities of ownership". Voices against the opportunity of increasing the popularity of copyright assignments are aplenty and it is pointless to repeat good arguments which I find fully convincing. If you are interested in the subject, here are a few good reads I recommend:

What I would like to add to the debate is the point of view of a Free Software enthusiast, not unlike yours truly. I contribute to Free Software not because it is superior to proprietary software in either its software products or in its development methodology. (It actually is superior in many cases, but that's just not my primary motivation.) I do contribute to Free Software to build a world in which users are in complete control of the software they run.

Let's assume we have a broken toaster at home. We are all free to (1) open it up and try to repair it by ourselves. If we don't have the needed knowledge, we are free to (2) hand it over to a person that we trust and who does have the needed knowledge to repair it. That failing, we can (3) ask the toaster producer to repair it for us. Many people like me simply don't accept to live in a world where, once all the toasters will be software-driven, the only repair option will be (3), just because the toaster software is proprietary. (Given various kind of [broken] metaphors have been used to explain copyright assignments, it seemed sensible to propose my broken toaster metaphor in exchange.)

When I contribute to some Free Software project, I not only care about being able myself to get a Free Software licensed copy of the whole product (i.e. the original software product + my own contribution). I care that all recipients of the product, present and future, will be able to get that contribution with enough freedoms attached to put them in control of the software that includes it. This desire can be fulfilled with a varying degree of success, depending on the license of the code base I contribute to. For instance, I find more pleasant to contribute to a copyleft licensed code base than to a weak-/non-copyleft licensed one, and more pleasant to contribute to an AGPL-ed web app than to a copyleft web app. It also means that, given the option, I will not allow the code base maintainer to re-license my contribution under terms that allow distributing it without suitable freedoms attached.

Different contributors will be ready to accept different re-licensing promises, but the mere fact we are debating all this — and that companies like Canonical feel the need of campaigning for copyright assignments — is evidence that many contributors like me exists and actually have a problem with allowing downstream relicensing of their contributions. What is feared the most is of course proprietary relicensing. According to my moral horizon this is the case not because the company might end up gaining money out of my code: I wouldn't have a problem with that. The reason is rather that the company will be able to distribute my own code in a way that grants less freedoms to users than those that were implicitly "agreed upon" when the contribution has been written.

In that respect, I can't help thinking at harmony agreements as a large scale smoke screen experiment meant to convince volunteers that copyright assignments are something Free Software needs. By exploiting the creative-commons-like "it's easy, just choose one" scheme, Harmony takes the chance of offering misleading options such as the one labeled "any OSI approved license". Via that option, which is seemingly fine, the copyright recipient will be allowed to relicense the contribution under some non-copyleft license (e.g. BSD) and from there do essentially what they want.

All in all, companies campaigning for copyright assignments seem to have failed to understand two main points. The first one is that contributors motivated by Free Software ideals want the code to remain free not only for themselves, but for all recipients of the code. I'm not claiming that all contributors to FOSS projects belong to this category, but the fact that there is a considerable amount of such people is undeniable. Hoping that they will be fooled by tricks like the "any OSI approved license" agreement is foolish.

The second is that while volunteer Free Software communities do respect companies that provide huge amounts of code contributions, they also expect companies to figure out by themselves which business models make their businesses sustainable. Telling volunteers that current business models are not sustainable without proprietary relicensing is worthless. Volunteers just don't care. They want software freedom guarantees and are not willing to renounce to them in exchange of the wealth of companies, not even under the (implicit) threat that otherwise those companies will be forced to reduce the amount of their code contributions.

Update: explain in the initial note why my reasoning here encompasses both CCAs and CLAs. Thanks Tollef for noticing that it wasn't clear.