Owning Your Own Copyrights in Open Source

This article covers several aspects: owning the copyrights you develop outside of your employed time and the more thorny aspect of owning the copyrights in open source projects you work on for your employer. It will also take a look at the middle ground of being a contract entity doing paid work on open source. This article follows the historical sweep of my journey through this field and so some aspects may be outdated and all are within the bounds of the US legal system and it’s most certainly not complete, just a description of what I did and what I learned.

Why Should you Own your Own Source code?

In the early days of open source, everything was a hobby project and everyone owned their own contributions. Owning your own contribution was a sort of mark of franchise in the project. Of course, there were some projects, notably the FSF ones, which didn’t believe in distributed ownership and insisted you contribute ownership of your copyrights to them so they could look after the project for you. Obviously, since I’m a Linux Kernel developer and with the Linux Kernel being a huge distributed copyright project, it’s easy to see which side of the argument I fall.

The main rights you give up if you don’t own the code you create are the right to re-licence and the right to enforce. It probably hadn’t occurred to you that if you actually find a licence violation in a project you contribute to for your employer, you’ll have no standing to demand that the problem get addressed. In fact, any enforcement on the code would have to be done by the proper owner: your employer. Plus your employer can control the ultimate destination of that ownership, including selling your code to a copyright troll if they so wished … while you may trust your employer now you work for them, do you trust them to do the right thing for all time, especially since they may be bought out by EvilCorp on down the road?

The relicensing problem can also be thorny: as a strong open source contributor you’ve likely been on the receiving end of requests to relicense (“I really like the code in your project X and would like to incorporate it in my open source project Y, but there’s a licence compatibility problem, would you dual license it?”) and thought nothing about saying “yes”. However, if your employer owns the code, you were likely lying when you said “yes” because you have no relicensing rights and you must ask your employer for permission to do the relicensing.

All the above points up the dangers in the current ecosystem. Project contributors often behave like they own the code but if they don’t they can be leaving a legal minefield in their wakes. The way to fix this is to own your own code … or at least understand the limitations of your rights if you don’t.

Open Source in Your Own Time

It’s a mistake to think that just because you work on something in your own time it isn’t actually owned by your employer. Historically, at least in the US, employment agreements contain incredibly broad provisions for invention ownership which basically try to claim anything you invent at any hour of the day or night that might be even vaguely related to your employment. Not unnaturally this caused huge volumes of litigation around startups where former employees successfully develop innovations their prior employer declined to pursue (at least until it started making money). This has lead to a slew of state based legal safe harbour protections for employee inventions. Most of them, like the Illinois Statute I first used, have similar wording

A provision in an employment agreement which provides that an employee shall assign or offer to assign any of the employee’s rights in an invention to the employer does not apply to an invention for which no equipment, supplies, facilities, or trade secret information of the employer was used and which was developed entirely on the employee’s own time … is … void and unenforceable.

765 ILCS 1060/2

In fact most states now require the wording to appear in the employment contract, so you likely don’t have to look up the statute to figure out what to do. The biggest requirements are that it be on your own time and you not be using any employer equipment, so the most important thing is to make sure you have your own laptop or computer. If you follow the requirements to the letter, you should be safe enough in owning your own time open source code. However, if you really want a guarantee you need to take extra precautions.

Own Time Open Source Carve Outs in Employment agreements

When you join a company, one of the things you’ll sign is a prior invention disclosure form, usually as an appendix to the invention assignment agreement as part of your employment contract. Here’s an example one from the SEC database (ironically for a Chinese subsidiary). Look particularly at section 2(a) “Inventions Retained and Licensed”. It’s basically pure CYA for the company, and most people leave Exhibit A blank, but you shouldn’t do that. What you should do is list all your current and future (by doing sweeping guesswork) own open source projects. The most useful clause in 2(a) says “I agree that I will not incorporate any Prior Inventions into any products …” so you and your employer have now agreed that all the listed projects are outside the scope of your employment agreement.

As far as I can tell, no-one really looks at Exhibit A at all, so I’ve been really general and put things like “The Linux Kernel” and “Open Source UEFI software” “Open Source cryptography such as gnupg, openssl and gnutls” and never been challenged on it.

One legitimate question, which will probably happen if your carve outs are very broad, is what happens if your employer specifically asks you to work on a project you’ve declared in Exhibit A? Ideally you could use this as an opportunity to negotiate an addendum to your contract covering your ownership of open source. However, if you don’t want to rock the boat, you can simply do nothing and rely on the fact that the agreement has something to say about this. The sample section 2(a) above goes on to give your employer a non-exclusive licence, which you could take as agreement to your continued ownership of the copyrights in the code, even through your employer is now instructing you (and paying you) to work on it. However, the say nothing approach has never been tested in court and may be vulnerable to challenge, so a safer course is to send your manager an email pointing out the issue and proposing to follow the licence in the employment contract. If they do nothing, thinking the matter settled, as most managers do, then you have legal cover for continuing to own your own copyrights. You can make it as vague as you like, so using the above sample agreement, something like “You’ve asked me to work on Project X which was listed in Exhibit A of my employment agreement. To move forward, I’m happy to licence all future works on this project to you under the terms of section 2(a)”. It looks innocuous, but it’s actually a statement that your company doesn’t get copyright ownership because of the actual wording in section 2(a) says the company gets a non-exclusive licence if you incorporate any works listed in Exhibit A. Remember to save the email somewhere safe (and any reply which is additional proof it was seen) just in case.

Owning Open Source Produced on Company Time

The first thing to note is that if your employer pays for you to work on open source, absent any side agreement, the code that you produce will be owned by your employer. This isn’t some US specific thing, this is a general principle of employment the world over (they pay you, so they own it). So even if you work in Europe, your employer will still own your open source copyrights if they pay you to work on the project, moral rights arguments notwithstanding. The only way to change this is to get some sort of explicit or implicit (if you want to go the carve out route above) agreement about the ownership.

Although I’ve negotiated both joint and exclusive ownership of open source via employment agreements, the actual agreements are still the property of the relevant corporations and thus, unfortunately, while I can describe some of the elements, I can’t publish the text (employment agreements are the crown jewels the HR dragons guard).

How to Negotiate

Most employers (or at least their lawyers) will refuse point blank to change the wording of employment agreements. However, what you want can be a side agreement and usually doesn’t require rewording the employment agreement at all. All you need is the understanding that the side agreement will get executed. One big problem can be that most negotiations over employment agreements occur with people from HR, which is a department with the least understanding of open source, so you don’t want to be negotiating the side agreement with them, you want to talk to the person that is hiring you. You also need to present your request as reasonable, so find out if anyone inside your prospective new company has done something similar. Often they have, and they’ll likely be someone in open source you’ve at least heard of so you can approach them and ask for details. “But you gave a copyright ownership side agreement to X” is often a great way to advance your cause. Don’t be afraid to ask and argue politely but firmly … hiring talented developers is very competitive nowadays so they have (or at least the manager who wants to hire you has) a vested interest in keeping you happy.

Consider Joint Ownership

Joint ownership is a specific legal term meaning the rights in a copyright are shared by the joint owners. Effectively this sharing means that either party may enforce without consulting the other and either party may license the work without consulting the other (but here they must share any profits from the licence equally among joint owners).

Joint ownership is often a good solution because it gives you the right to relicence and the right to enforce, while also giving your employer a share in what they paid to produce. Joint ownership is often far easier to sell to corporations than one or other of you having exclusive ownership because it gives them all the rights they would have had anyway. The only slight concern you may have down the road is it does give them the right to relicence or sell on their ownership, say to an open core business or to an enforcement troll. However, the good news is that as joint owner you now have a right to a half share of any profit they (and the new owner) make out of such a rights transfer, which can potentially act as a deterrent to the transaction if you remind them of this requirement.

Open Source as a Contractor

In some ways this is the best relationship. There are no work for hire assumptions about companies you contract for owning your free time, so doing other open source projects is easy. However, a contractor is bound by whatever contract you sign, so you need someone with legal training to help you make sure it is actually equitable. You can’t get around this legal requirement: the protections that exist for employees don’t exist for contractors, so if you sign a contract saying in exchange for a certain sum company X owns the entirety of your output, you will be bound by it. So remember: read the contract and negotiate the terms.

Copyright Ownership as a Contractor

Surprisingly, in a relationship where you’re contracted to get something upstream, it’s often in the client’s best interest to have the contractor own the copyrights in Open Source. It means the contractor is responsible for all the nitty gritty of pushing patches and dealing with contribution agreements and the client simply gets the end product: the thing they wanted upstream. I’ve found this a surprisingly easy sell to most legal departments. Even if the client does want some sort of ownership of the code, you can offer joint ownership as the easy route to you taking on all the hassle and them getting the benefits of ownership.

Trade Secrets

As a contractor, you’ll likely be forced to sign an NDA never to reveal client secrets. This is pretty usual, but the pitfall in open source, particularly if you’re doing a driver for a device whose programming manual is under NDA, is that you are going to be revealing them contrary to the NDA. You need this handled in an equitable fashion in the contract to avoid unpleasant problems long after the job is done. The simplest phrase you need is something like “Client understands that open source is developed in public and authorizes that all information necessary to producing X under this contract be disclosed to the public”.

Patents

Patents can be a huge minefield with contract open source, because as a contractor who owns the copyrights and negotiates the contribution agreements, you have no authority to bind your client’s patents. You really don’t want to find yourself being used as a conduit for a patent ambush on open source (where a client contracts with you to put code into a project which reads on a patent they hold and then turns around and patent trolls the ecosystem) so you need contract language binding the client patents at least in the work you’re doing for them. Something simple like “Client grants a perpetual and irrevocable licence, consistent with the terms of the open source licence for X, to all contributions made by contractor to X that read on patents client holds now or may in future acquire”. This latter is pretty narrow, so you could start out by trying to get a patent licence for the entirety of project X and negotiate down from there.

Conclusions

Owning your own copyrights in open source is possible provided you’re careful. The strategies outlined above are based on my own experiences (all in the US) as a contract employee from 1995-2008 there after as a regular employee but are not the only ones you could pursue, so ask around to see what others have done as well. The main problem with all the strategies above is that they work well when you’re negotiating your employment. If you’re already working at some corporation they’re unlikely to be helpful to you unless you really have a simple own time open source project. Oh, and just remember that while the snippets I quoted above for the contract case may actually have been in contracts I signed, this isn’t legal advice and you should have a lawyer advise you how best to incorporate the various points raised.

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