Open source and IP ownership

I got myself in a small bit of trouble recently talking about open source IP ownership when I should have been talking about the cool new collaboration and mobile features in the 4.0 release of the Zimbra Collaboration Suite. (Nothing like a developer coming by your cube and saying “You said what?”) While I didn’t do such a good job at the time, the underlying point is an important one, so I’m going to give it another shot …

It is increasingly common practice in open source communities to insist upon a single organization owning the IP rights for a particular project. For example, the Apache and Free Software Foundations do this as well as private firms like Zimbra. The primary goal of IP ownership is to better guarantee “squeaky clean” IP (that is, that all contributed code is unencumbered by any hidden IP rights) for the benefit of the community as well as for customers. This also ensures that open source licensing upgrade decisions can be made for future releases of the open source license itself—without an organizational owner, projects can effectively get locked to a particular version of a license because there is no easy way to get all of the IP owners together to make a decision about upgrading.

The grief came in particular from my drawing parallels between Zimbra—a for-profit company—with more altruistic non-profit organizations like Apache and FSF regarding IP ownership. No doubt there are clear differences between for-profits and non-profits that the prospective community members have every right to consider, but I think in terms of IP ownership there is more in common than different.

For a potential community member, the most important thing is the long-term guarantee of their freedoms: (1) Open source rights (granted under the open source software license) to use the product in perpetuity for free, to produce and redistribute any derivative works thereof for free, and so on; and (2) rights to do whatever they may see fit in perpetuity for any of their own contributions that they made in good faith to the project. (The good contribution agreements grant contributors back all of their rights except those that could interfere with the community, such as the right to withdraw their contribution in the future, the right to charge the community patent royalties down the road, etc. For example, Zimbra’s Contributor Agreement can be found here. For another take, check out Dojo, one of our Open Ajax Alliance partners. ) This practice seems to me to strike the right balance between preserving individual freedoms without sacrificing the freedoms of the community as a whole.

Both non-profit and for-profit open source organizations equally guarantee these freedoms to their communities, the difference being that the for-profit ones (like Zimbra) also strive to sell optional value-added services on the side, much of the proceeds of which then funds the further development of the open source software.

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