A “standard” clause you’ll see in most employment contracts is an IP assignment clause. This clause assigns the intellectual property produced by an employee in the course of their work to the business that they work for. This generally extends both to copyrights and patents, and the more egregious of these clauses include work done outside of company time and without the use of the company’s assets and equipment. Often this is accompanied with a burdensome process of identifying every copyright owned by the employee on a little sheet that accompanies the employment contract.
Free software projects overseen by businesses also often want to control the copyright of external contributors. This is usually done by imposing a Contributor License Agreement, or CLA, on the contributor before accepting their change. These either assign the contributor’s copyright outright, or does so in all but name by signing over all of the rights associated with their copyright.
In the absence of such agreements, copyright for each contribution to a free software project remains held by the contributors themselves. Thus, ownership of that project’s IP is collectively held by its contributors. Consequently, the “owners”1 of the project cannot change the license to make it more restrictive, or more permissive, or non-free outright, without the written consent of each of the copyright holders.2 The project stewards are offered the same FOSS license terms for each contribution that they offer to everyone else for their own.
SourceHut does not ask our staff to sign an IP assignment, and we do not ask our external contributors to sign a CLA. Consequently, SourceHut, the business entity, does not own its intellectual property. It is collectively owned by the individuals who have worked on it, both internal and external. When I say SourceHut belongs to its users, I’m not using flowery doublespeak — I mean it literally.
To re-enforce this, we rely on copyleft software licenses. Copyleft, to offer a simplified explanation, essentially requires that any changes to the project must also be released under the same software license. If we held the copyright for our software, we could disregard these terms, but because contributors license their copyright to us under the same copyleft licenses, we are obligated to use their contribution under the same terms and release our changes as free software as well. If we used a permissive license like MIT or BSD, we could fork the project and keep our changes closed-source, but using copyleft closes this path to us and serves as a strong promise to the community that SourceHut will always be free software.
We do things a bit differently from the industry “standards”. We honor and respect each contributor’s work, both internal and external, and their copyright forms an important piece of the safeguards we use to establish trust with our community. We honor and respect our staff members as well, and do not impose upon them IP assignments, non-disclosure agreements, or non-competes. This approach is a more just way of doing business, and is our strategy for building a long-lived and sustainable free software platform, hand-in-hand with the community, on equal terms as peers working towards a shared vision.