Open Source

Who really owns your open source code?

If you are a developer committed to open source and you wish for your contributions to always remain open, do not reassign copyright to an external party

In the wake of Apple's purchase of CUPS, there is a simple lesson to take away — if you are a developer committed to open source and you wish for your contributions to always remain open, do not reassign copyright to an external party.

As the new holder of copyright to all CUPS code, Apple is able to re-license and add non-open functionality into CUPS if it so wishes. This situation is not unheard of within the open source world as it is similar to what Trolltech could do with QT or MySQL AB with MySQL. In fact, the Red Hat acquisition of JBoss made Red Hat the sole copyright holder of JBoss for the exact same reasons that Apple is now the sole copyright holder of CUPS.

It would be easy to mount the soapbox and cry foul over Apple's buyout — and wrong. There is nothing illegal in what Apple has done, but is it moral and within the spirit of the GPL?

It is interesting to note that if you wish to contribute to any of the Free Software Foundation projects, you need to assign copyright to them. Therefore if it is good for the goose, it is good for gander.

The true proof will lie in the pudding. If Apple takes CUPS and improves and releases it back to the community then we will no doubt look back on the purchase as a good thing. On the other hand, if Apple crippled the project or closed sourced it, then there is always the option of the community taking the GPL code forking the project.

That this discussion is taking place at all is interesting. When Red Hat bought JBoss there was hardly no talking about the option of re-licensing, yet Apple gets CUPS and it's conspiracy time. Furthermore, this deal happened in February this year. Where has everyone been in this discussion for the past 5 months?

The people I feel sorry for in all of this are the people that contributed to CUPS and gave away their copyright rights under the assumption that they were contributing to an open project. Michael Sweet has no doubt made a pretty penny for it all and it is a shame that those people who gave away their time and ideas will not receive any remuneration.

If you are thinking about contributing to a project and it requires you to give up any rights, be aware of exactly what you are giving away.

About Chris Duckett

Some would say that it is a long way from software engineering to journalism, others would correctly argue that it is a mere 10 metres according to the floor plan.During his first five years with CBS Interactive, Chris started his journalistic advent...

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