GPL as the Best Licence – Governance and Philosophy

In the first part I discussed the balancing mechanisms the GPL provides for enabling corporate contributions, giving users a voice and the right one for mutually competing corporations to collaborate on equal terms.  In this part I’ll look at how the legal elements of the GPL licences make it pretty much the perfect one for supporting a community of developers co-operating with corporations and users.

As far as a summary of my talk goes, this series is complete.  However, I’ve been asked to add some elaboration on the legal structure of GPL+DCO contrasted to other CLAs and also include AGPL, so I’ll likely do some other one off posts in the Legal category about this.

Free Software vs Open Source

There have been many definitions of both of these.  Rather than review them, in the spirit of Humpty Dumpty, I’ll give you mine: Free Software, to me, means espousing a set of underlying beliefs about the code (for instance the four freedoms of the FSF).  While this isn’t problematic for many developers (code freedom, of course, is what enables developer driven communities) it is an anathema to most corporations and in particular their lawyers because, generally applied, it would require the release of all software based intellectual property.  Open Source on the other hand, to me, means that you follow all the rules of the project (usually licensing and contribution requirements) but don’t necessarily sign up to the philosophy underlying the project (if there is one; most Open Source projects won’t have one).

Open Source projects are compatible with Corporations because, provided they have some commonality in goals, even a corporation seeking to exploit a market can march a long way with a developer driven community before the goals diverge.  This period of marching together can be extremely beneficial for both the project and the corporation and if corporate priorities change, the corporation can simply stop contributing.  As I have stated before, Community Managers serve an essential purpose in keeping this goal alignment by making the necessary internal business adjustments within a corporation and by explaining the alignment externally.

The irony of the above is that collaborating within the framework of the project, as Open Source encourages, could work just as well for a Free Software project, provided the philosophical differences could be overcome (or overlooked).  In fact, one could go a stage further and theorize that the four freedoms as well as being input axioms to Free Software are, in fact, the generated end points of corporate pursuit of Open Source, so if the Open Source model wins in business, there won’t actually be a discernible difference between Open Source and Free Software.

Licences and Philosophy

It has often been said that the licence embodies the philosophy of the project (I’ve said it myself on more than one occasion, for which I’d now like to apologize).  However, it is an extremely reckless statement because it’s manifestly untrue in the case of GPL.  Neither v2 nor v3 does anything to require that adopters also espouse the four freedoms, although it could be said that the Tivoization Clause of v3, to which the kernel developers objected, goes slightly further down the road of trying to embed philosophy in the licence.  The reason for avoiding this statement is that it’s very easy for an inexperienced corporation (or pretty much any corporate legal counsel with lack of Open Source familiarity) to take this statement at face value and assume adopting the code or the licence will force some sort of viral adoption of a philosophy which is incompatible with their current business model and thus reject the use of reciprocal licences altogether.  Whenever any corporation debates using or contributing to Open Source, there’s inevitably an internal debate and this licence embeds philosophy argument is a powerful weapon for the Open Source opponents.

Equity in Contribution Models

Some licensing models, like those pioneered by Apache, are thought to require a foundation to pass the rights through under the licence: developers (or their corporations) sign a Contributor Licence Agreement (CLA) which basically grants the foundation redistributable licences to both copyrights and patents in the code and then the the Foundation licenses the contribution to the Project under Apache-2.  The net result is the outbound rights (what consumers of the project gets) are Apache-2 but the inbound rights (what contributors are required to give away) are considerably more.  The danger in this model is that control of the foundation gives control of the inbound rights, so who controls the foundation and how control may be transferred forms an important part of the analysis of what happens to contributor rights.  Note that this model is also the basis of open core, with a corporation taking the place of the foundation.

Inequity in the inbound versus the outbound rights creates an imbalance of power within the project between those who possess the inbound rights and everyone else (who only possess the outbound rights) and can damage developer driven communities by creating an alternate power structure (the one which controls the IP rights).  Further, the IP rights tend to be a focus for corporations, so simply joining the controlling entity (or taking a licence from it) instead of actually contributing to the project can become an end goal, thus weakening the technical contributions to the project and breaking the link with end users.

Creating equity in the licensing framework is thus a key to preserving the developer driven nature of a community.  This equity can be preserved by using the Inbound = Outbound principle, first pioneered by Richard Fontana, the essential element being that contributors should only give away exactly the rights that downstream recipients require under the licence.  This structure means there is no need for a formal CLA and instead a model like the Developer Certificate of Origin (DCO) can be used whereby the contributor simply places a statement in the source control of the project itself attesting to giving away exactly the rights required by the licence.  In this model, there’s no requirement to store non-electronic copies of the the contribution attestation (which inevitably seem to get lost), because the source control system used by the project does this.  Additionally, the source browsing functions of the source control system can trace a single line of code back exactly to all the contributor attestations thus allowing fully transparent inspection and independent verification of all the inbound contribution grants.

The Dangers of Foundations

Foundations which have no special inbound contribution rights can still present a threat to the project by becoming an alternate power structure.  In the worst case, the alternate power structure is cemented by the Foundation having a direct control link with the project, usually via some Technical Oversight Committee (TOC).  In this case, the natural Developer Driven nature of the project is sapped by the TOC creating uncertainty over whether a contribution should be accepted or not, so now the object isn’t to enthuse fellow developers, it’s to please the TOC.  The control confusion created by this type of foundation directly atrophies the project.

Even if a Foundation specifically doesn’t create any form of control link with the project, there’s still the danger that a corporation’s marketing department sees joining the Foundation as a way of linking itself with the project without having to engage the engineering department, and thus still causing a weakening in both potential contributions and the link between the project and its end users.

There are specific reasons why projects need foundations (anything requiring financial resources like conferences or grants requires some entity to hold the cash) but they should be driven by the need of the community for a service and not by the need of corporations for an entity.

GPL+DCO as the Perfect Licence and Contribution Framework

Reciprocity is the key to this: the requirement to give back the modifications levels the playing field for corporations by ensuring that they each see what the others are doing.  Since there’s little benefit (and often considerable down side) to hiding modifications and doing a dump at release time, it actively encourages collaboration between competitors on shared features.  Reciprocity also contains patent leakage as we saw in Part 1.  Coupled with the DCO using the Inbound = Outbound principle, means that the Licence and DCO process are everything you need to form an effective and equal community.

Equality enforced by licensing coupled with reciprocity also provides a level playing field for corporate contributors as we saw in part 1, so equality before the community ensures equity among all participants.  Since this is analogous to the equity principles that underlie a lot of the world’s legal systems, it should be no real surprise that it generates the best contribution framework for the project.  Best of all, the model works simply and effectively for a group of contributors without necessity for any more formal body.

Contributions and Commits

Although GPL+DCO can ensure equity in contribution, some human agency is still required to go from contribution to commit.  The application of this agency is one of the most important aspects to the vibrancy of the project and the community.  The agency can be exercised by an individual or a group; however, the composition of the agency doesn’t much matter, what does is that the commit decisions of the agency essentially (and impartially) judge the technical merit of the contribution in relation to the project.

A bad commit agency can be even more atrophying to a community than a Foundation because it directly saps the confidence the community has in the ability of good (or interesting) code to get into the tree.  Conversely, a good agency is simply required to make sound technical decisions about the contribution, which directly preserves the confidence of the community that good code gets into the tree.   As such, the role requires leadership, impartiality and sound judgment rather than any particular structure.

Governance and Enforcement

Governance seems to have many meanings depending on context, so lets narrow it to the rules by which the project is run (this necessarily includes gathering the IP contribution rights) and how they get followed. In a GPL+DCO framework, the only additional governance component required is the commit agency.

However, having rules isn’t sufficient unless you also follow them; in other words you need some sort of enforcement mechanism.  In a non-GPL+DCO system, this usually involves having an elaborate set of sanctions and some sort of adjudication system, which, if not set up correctly, can also be a source of inequity and project atrophy.  In a GPL+DCO system, most of the adjudication system and sanctions can be replaced by copyright law (this was the design of the licence, after all), which means licence enforcement (or at least the threat of it) becomes the enforcement mechanism.  The only aspect of governance this doesn’t cover is the commit agency.  However, with no other formal mechanisms to support its authority, the commit agency depends on the trust of the community to function and could easily be replaced by that community simply forking the tree and trusting a new commit agency.

The two essential corollaries of the above is that enforcement does serve an essential governance purpose in a GPL+DCO ecosystem and lack of a formal power structure keeps the commit agency honest because the community could replace it.

The final thing worth noting is that too many formal rules can also seriously weaken a project by encouraging infighting over rule interpretations, how exactly they should be followed and who did or did not dot the i’s and cross the t’s.  This makes the very lack of formality and lack of a formalised power structure which the GPL+DCO encourages a key strength of the model.


In the first part I concluded that the GPL fostered the best ecosystem between developers, corporations and users by virtue of the essential ecosystem fairness it engenders.  In this part I conclude that formal control structures are actually detrimental to a developer driven community and thus the best structural mechanism is pure GPL+DCO with no additional formality.  Finally I conclude that this lack of ecosystem control is no bar to strong governance, since that can be enforced by any contributor through the copyright mechanism, and the very lack of control is what keeps the commit agency correctly serving the community.

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