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Why Conservancy's Kallithea Project Exists

by Bradley M. Kuhn on July 15, 2014

Eleven days ago, Conservancy announced Kallithea. Kallithea is a GPLv3'd system for hosting and managing Mercurial and Git repositories on one's own servers. As Conservancy mentioned in its announcement, Kallithea is indeed based on code released under GPLv3 by RhodeCode GmbH. Below, I describe why Conservancy chose to serve as non-profit home to an obvious fork (as this is the first time Conservancy ever welcomed a fork as a member project).

The primary impetus for Kallithea is that more recent versions of RhodeCode GmbH's codebase contain a very unorthodox and ambiguous license statement, which states:

(1) The Python code and integrated HTML are licensed under the GPLv3 license as is RhodeCode itself.
(2) All other parts of the RhodeCode including, but not limited to the CSS code, images, and design are licensed according to the license purchased.

Simply put, this licensing scheme is — either (a) a GPL violation, (b) an unclear license permission statement under the GPL which leaves the redistributor feeling unclear about their rights, or (c) both.

When members of the Mercurial community first brought this license to Conservancy's attention about ten months ago, the first focus was to form a formal opinion regarding (a). Of course, Conservancy did form such an opinion, and you can probably guess what that is. However, I realized a few weeks later that this analysis really didn't matter in this case; the situation called for a more innovative solution.

Indeed, I recalled at that time the disputes between AT&T and University of California at Berkeley over BSD. In that case, while nearly all of the BSD code was adjudicated as freely licensed, the dispute itself was painful for the BSD community. BSD's development slowed nearly to a standstill for years while the legal disagreement was resolved. Court action — even if you're in the right — isn't always the fastest nor best way to push forward an important Free Software project.

In the case of RhodeCode's releases, there was an obvious and more productive solution. Namely, the 1.7.2 release of RhodeCode's codebase, written primarily by Marcin Kuzminski was fully released under GPLv3-only, and provided an excellent starting point to begin a GPLv3'd fork. Furthermore, some of the improved code in the 2.2.5 era of RhodeCode's codebase were explicitly licensed under GPLv3 by RhodeCode GmbH itself. Finally, many volunteers produced patches for all versions of RhodeCode's codebase and released those patches under GPLv3, too. Thus, there was already a burgeoning GPLv3-friendly community yearning to begin.

Conservancy's primary contribution, therefore, was to vet and verify a completely indisputable GPLv3'd version of the codebase. This was extensive and time consuming work; I personally spent over 100 hours to reach this point, and I suspect many Kallithea volunteers have already spent that much and more. Ironically, the most complex part of the work so far was verifying and organizing the licensing situation regarding third-party Javascript (released under a myriad of various licenses). You can see the details of that work by reading the revision history of Kallithea (or, you can read an overview in Kallithea's LICENSE file).

Like with any Free Software codebase fork, acrimony and disagreement led to Kallithea's creation. However, as the person who made most of the early changesets for Kallithea, I want to thank RhodeCode GmbH for explicitly releasing some of their work under GPLv3. Even as I hereby reiterate publicly my previously private request that RhodeCode GmbH correct the parts of their licensing scheme that are (at best) problematic, and (at worst) GPL-violating, I also point out this simple fact to those who have been heavily criticizing and admonishing RhodeCode GmbH: the situation could be much worse! RhodeCode could have simply never released any of their code under the GPLv3 in the first place. After all, there are many well-known code hosting sites that refuse to release any of their code (or release only a pittance of small components). By contrast, the GPLv3'd RhodeCode software was nearly a working system that helped bootstrap the Kallithea community. We're grateful for that, and we welcome RhodeCode developers to contribute to Kallithea under GPLv3. We do note, of course, that RhodeCode developers sadly can't incorporate any of our improvements in their codebase, due to their problematic license. However, Conservancy extends again our offer (also made privately last year) to work with RhodeCode GmbH to correct its licensing problems.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, Kallithea

Why Your Project Doesn't Need a Contributor Licensing Agreement

by Bradley M. Kuhn on June 9, 2014

For nearly a decade, a battle has raged between two distinct camps regarding something called Contributor Licensing Agreements (CLAs). In my personal capacity, I've written extensively on the issue. This article below is a summary on the basics of why CLA's aren't necessary, and on Conservancy's typical recommendations to its projects regarding the issue.

In the most general sense, a CLA is a formal legal contract between a contributor to a FLOSS project and the “project” itself0. Ostensibly, this agreement seeks to assure the project, and/or its governing legal entity, has the appropriate permissions to incorporate contributed patches, changes, and/or improvements to the software and then distribute the resulting larger work.

In practice, most CLAs in use today are (at best) overkill for that purpose. CLAs simply shift legal blame for any patent infringement, copyright infringement, or other bad acts from the project (or its legal entity) back onto its contributors. Meanwhile, since vetting every contribution for copyright and/or patent infringement is time-consuming and expensive, no existing organization actually does that work. Thus, no one knows (in the general case) if the contributors' assurances in the CLA are valid. Indeed, since it's so difficult to determine if a given work of software infringes a patent, it's highly likely that any contributor submitting a patent-infringing patch did so inadvertently and without any knowledge that the patent even existed — even regarding patents controlled by their own company1.

The undeniable benefit to CLAs relates to contributions from for-profit companies who likely do hold patents that read on the software. It's useful to receive from such companies (whenever possible) a patent license for any patents exercised in making, using or selling the FLOSS containing that company's contributions. I agree that such an assurance is nice to have, and I might consider supporting CLAs if there was no other cost associated with using them. However, maintenance of CLA-assent records requires massive administrative overhead.

More importantly, CLAs require the first interaction between a FLOSS project and a new contributor to involve a complex legal negotiation and a formal legal agreement. CLAs twist the empowering, community-oriented, enjoyable experience of FLOSS contribution into an annoying exercise in pointless bureaucracy, which (if handled properly) requires a business-like, grating haggle between necessarily adverse parties. And, that's the best possible outcome. Admittedly, few contributors actually bother to negotiate about the CLA. CLAs frankly rely on our “Don't Read & Click ‘Agree’” culture — thereby tricking contributors into bearing legal risk. FLOSS project leaders shouldn't rely on “gotcha” fine print like car salespeople.

Thus, I encourage those considering a CLA to look past the “nice assurances we'd like to have — all things being equal” and focus on the “what legal assurances our FLOSS project actually needs to assure its thrives”. We at Conservancy have spent years doing that analysis; we concluded quite simply: in this regard, all a project and its legal home actually need is a clear statement and/or assent from the contributor that they offer the contribution under the project's known FLOSS license. Long ago, the now famous Open Source lawyer Richard Fontana dubbed this legal policy with the name “inbound=outbound”. It's a powerful concept that shows clearly the redundancy of CLAs.

Most importantly, “inbound=outbound” makes a strong and correct statement about the FLOSS license the project chooses. FLOSS licenses must contain all the legal terms that are necessary for a project to thrive. If the project is unwilling to accept (inbound) contribution of code under the terms of the license it chose, that's a clear indication that the project's (outbound) license has serious deficiencies that require immediate remedy. This is precisely why Conservancy advises2 that our projects select a FLOSS license with a strong patent clause, such as the GPLv3 or the Apache License, Version 2.0. With a license like those, Conservancy believes that CLAs are unnecessary.

Meanwhile, the issue of requesting the contributors' assent to the projects' license is orthogonal to the issue of CLAs. Conservancy does encourage use of clear systems (either formal or informal) for that purpose. One popular option is called the Developer Certificate of Origin (DCO). Originally designed for the Linux project and published by the OSDL under the CC-By-SA license, the DCO is a mechanism to assure contributors have confirmed their right to license their contribution under the project's license. Typically, developers indicate their agreement to the DCO with a specially-formed tag in their DVCS commit log. Conservancy's Evergreen, phpMyAdmin, and Samba projects all use modified versions of the DCO.

Conservancy's Selenium project uses a license assent mechanism somewhat closer to a formal CLA. In this method, the contributors must complete a special online form wherein they formally assent to the license of the project. The project keeps careful records of all assents separately from the code repository itself. This mechanism is a bit heavy-weight, but ultimately simply formally implements the same inbound=outbound concept.

However, most Conservancy projects use the same time-honored and successful mechanism used throughout the 35 year history of the Free Software community. Simply, they publish clearly in their developer documentation and/or other key places (such as mailing list subscription notices) that submissions using the normal means to contribute to the project — such as patches to the mailing list or pull and merge requests — indicate the contributors' assent for inclusion of that software in the canonical version under the project's license.

Ultimately, CLAs are much ado about nothing. Lawyers are trained to zealously represent their clients, and as such they often seek to an outcome that maximizes leverage of clients' legal rights, but they typically ignore the other important benefits that are outside of their profession. The most ardent supporters of CLAs have yet to experience first-hand the arduous daily work required to manage a queue of incoming FLOSS contributions. Those of us who have done the latter easily see that avoiding additional barriers to entry is paramount. While a beautifully crafted CLA — jam-packed with legalese that artfully shifts all the blame off to the contributors — may make some corporate attorneys smile, but I've never seen such bring anything but a frown and a sigh from FLOSS developers.


0Only rarely does an unincorporated, unaffiliated project request CLAs. Typically, CLAs name a corporate entity — a non-profit charity (like Conservancy), a trade association (like OpenStack Foundation), or a for-profit company, as its ultimate beneficiary. On rare occasions, the beneficiary of a CLA is a single individual developer.

1I've yet to meet any FLOSS developer who has read their own employer's entire patent portfolio.

2Conservancy doesn't mandate any specific Open Source and Free Software license for our projects. That's just not our style. Any license that appears as both an Open Source license on the OSI-approved list and as a Free Software license on FSF's license list is good enough for Conservancy.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, CLA

The Change in My Role at Conservancy

by Bradley M. Kuhn on March 31, 2014

Today, Conservancy announced the addition of Karen Sandler to our management team. This addition to Conservancy's staff will greatly improve Conservancy's ability to help Conservancy's many member projects.

This outcome is one I've been working towards for a long time. I've focused for at least a year on fundraising for Conservancy in hopes that we could hire a third full-time staffer. For the last few years, I've been doing basically two full-time jobs, since I've needed to give my personal attention to virtually everything Conservancy does. This obviously doesn't scale, so my focus has been on increasing capacity at Conservancy to serve more projects better.

I (and the entire Board of Directors of Conservancy) have often worried if I were to disappear, leave Conservancy (or otherwise just drop dead), Conservancy might not survive without me. Such heavy reliance on one person is a bug, not a feature, in an organization. That's why I worked so hard to recruit Karen Sandler as Conservancy's new Executive Director. Admittedly, she helped create Conservancy and has been involved since its inception. But, having her full-time on staff is a great step forward: there's no single point of failure anymore.

It's somewhat difficult for me to relinquish some of my personal control over Conservancy. I have been mostly responsible for building Conservancy from a small unstaffed “thin” fiscal sponsor into a “full-service” fiscal sponsor that provides virtually any work that a Free Software project requests. Much of that has been thanks to my work, and it's tough to let someone else take that over.

However, handing off the Executive Director position to Karen specifically made this transition easy. Put simply, I trust Karen, and I recruited her personally to take over (one of) my job(s). She really believes in software freedom in the way that I do, and she's taught me at least half the things I know about non-profit organizational management. We've collaborated on so many projects and have been friends and colleagues — through both rough and easy times — for nearly a decade. While I think I'm justified in saying I did a pretty good job as Conservancy's Executive Director, Karen will do an even better job than I did.

I'm not stepping aside completely from Conservancy management, though. I'm continuing in the role of President and I remain on the Board of Directors. I'll be involved with all strategic decisions for the organization, and I'll be the primary manager for a few of Conservancy's program activities: including at least the non-profit accounting project and Conservancy's license enforcement activities. My primary staff role, however, will now be under the title “Distinguished Technologist” — a title we borrowed from HP. The basic idea behind this job at Conservancy is that my day-to-day work helps the organization understand the technology of Free Software and how it relates to Conservancy's work. As an initial matter, I suspect that my focus for the next few years is going to be the non-profit accounting project, since that's the most urgent place where Free Software is inadequately providing technological solutions for Conservancy's work. (Now, more than ever, I urge you to donate to that campaign, since it will become a major component of funding my day-to-day work. :)

I'm somewhat surprised that, even in the six hours since this announcement, I've already received emails from Conservancy member project representatives worded as if they expect they won't hear from me anymore. While, indeed, I'll cease to be the front-line contact person for issues related to Conservancy's work, Conservancy and its operations will remain my focus. Karen and I plan a collaborative management style for the organization, so I suspect for many things, Karen will brief me about what's going on and will seek my input. That said, I'm looking forward to a time very soon when most Conservancy management decisions won't primarily be mine anymore. I'm grateful for Karen, as I know that the two of us running Conservancy together will make a great working environment for both of us, and I really believe that she and I as a management team are greater than the sum of our parts.

Considerations on a non-profit home for your project

by Bradley M. Kuhn on December 5, 2013

I came across this email thread this week, and it seems to me that Node.js is facing a standard decision that comes up in the life of most Open Source and Free Software projects. It inspired me to write some general advice to Open Source and Free Software projects who might be at a similar crossroads0. Specifically, at some point in the history of a project, the community is faced with the decision of whether the project should be housed at a specific for-profit company, or have a non-profit entity behind it instead. Further, project leaders must consider, if they persue the latter, whether the community should form its own non-profit or affiliate with one that already exists.

Choosing a governance structure is a tough and complex decision for a project — and there is always some status quo that (at least) seems easier. Thus, there will always be a certain amount of acrimony in this debate. I have my own biases on this, since I am the Executive Director of Conservancy, a non-profit home for Open Source and Free Software projects, and because I have studied the issue of non-profit governance for Open Source and Free Software for the last decade. I have a few comments based on that experience that might be helpful to projects who face this decision.

The obvious benefit of a project housed in a for-profit company is that they'll usually always have more resources to put toward the project — particularly if the project is of strategic importance to their business. The downside is that the company almost always controls the trademark, perhaps controls the copyright to some extent (e.g., by being the sole beneficiary of a very broad CLA or ©AA), and likely has a stronger say in the technical direction of the project. There will also always be “brand conflation” when something happens in the project (Did the project do it, or did the company?), and such is easily observable in the many for-profit-controlled Open Source and Free Software projects.

By contrast, while a for-profit entity only needs to consider the interests of its own shareholders, a non-profit entity is legally required to balance the needs of many contributors and users. Thus, non-profits are a neutral home for activities of the project, and a neutral place for the trademark to live, perhaps a neutral place to receive CLAs (if the community even wants a CLA, that is), and to do other activities for the project. (Conservancy, for its part, has a list of what services it provides.)

There's also difference among non-profit options. The primary two USA options for Open Source and Free Software are 501(c)(3)'s (public charities) and 501(c)(6)'s (trade associations). 501(c)(3) public charities must always act in the public good, while 501(c)(6) trade associations act in interest of its paying for-profit members. I'm a fan of the 501(c)(3)-style of non-profit, again, because I help run one. IMO, the choice between the two really depends on whether you want the project run and controlled by a consortium of for-profit businesses, or if you want the project to operate as a public charity focused on advancing the public good by producing better Open Source and Free Software. BTW, the big benefit, IMO, to a 501(c)(3) is that the non-profit only represents the interests of the project with respect to the public good, so IRS prohibits the charity from conflating its motives with any corporate interest (be they single or aggregate).

If you decide you want a non-profit, there's then the decision of forming your own non-profit or affiliating with an existing non-profit. Folks who say it's easy to start a new non-profit are (mostly) correct; the challenge is in keeping it running. It's a tremendous amount of work and effort to handle the day-to-day requirements of non-profit management, which is why so many Open Source and Free Software projects choose to affiliate or join with an existing non-profit rather than form their own. I'd suggest strongly that the any community look into joining an existing home, in part because many non-profit umbrellas permit the project to later “spin off” to form your own non-profit. Thus, joining an existing entity is not always a permanent decision.

Anyway, as you've guessed, thinking about these questions is a part of what I do for a living. Thus, I'd love to talk (by email, phone or IRC) with anyone in any Open Source and Free Software community about joining Conservancy specifically, or even just to talk through all the non-profit options available. There are many options and existing non-profits, all with their own tweaks, so if a given community decides it'd like a non-profit home, there's lots to chose from and a lot to consider.

I'd note finally that the different tweaks between non-profit options deserve careful attention. I often see people commenting that structures imposed by non-profits won't help with what they need. However, not all non-profits have the same type of structures, and they focus on different things. For example, Conservancy doesn't dictate anything regarding specific CLA rules, licensing, development models, and the like. Conservancy generally advises about all the known options, and help the community come to the conclusions it wants and implement them well. The only place Conservancy has strict rules is with regard to the requirements and guidelines the IRS puts forward on 501(c)(3) status. Meanwhile, other non-profits do have strict rules for development models, or CLAs, and the like, which some projects prefer for various reasons.


0BTW, I don't think how a community comes to that crossroads matters that much, actually. At some point in a project's history, this issue is raised, and, at that moment, a decision is before the project.

Tags: conservancy

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