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When creating an open source project, I also write:

Copyright <my name>  
Licensed under <the license>.

There are several problems with that:

  • My future self might use the copyright to continue development as proprietary software. I am the only person in the world who has this dangerous power: Others can fork but their forks will need to remain open source.
  • At least the community might fear that. We have seen many examples of that happening in the past.

So, could I instead write:

Copyright Free Software Foundation  
Licensed under <the license>.

That would make me unable to continue as proprietary, as the copyright is not mine. If the community ever want to switch to another license, they will have an easier time talking with the FSF rather than with dead me or my hypothetic anti-OSS heirs.

Questions:

  • Could that work in principle?
  • Is it OK to assign copyright to the FSF without their knowledge?
  • If not, is there another foundation that accepts that?
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    I think you need the permission of FSF before you use their name in the license. – Jijo Bose Mar 3 '17 at 5:47
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    "My future self might use the copyright to continue development as proprietary software ... At least the community might fear that." I'm not so sure I agree with the last part. Tatu Ylönen made his original SSH implementation free to v1.2.12. After that, he took it proprietary. The community did what it's supposed to, forked the last free version, and here we are today with OpenSSH 7.4 and a number of other implementations. I don't think anyone thought Ylönen was some kind of villain for what he did; I was certainly grateful for all the work he'd put in up to that point. – MadHatter Mar 3 '17 at 11:37
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    Remember that even the copyright holder can't retrospectively revoke an existing licence grant. That you gave me something free yesterday doesn't mean you're committing to keep giving it free tomorrow, but it does mean I can keep the one I've already got. – MadHatter Mar 3 '17 at 11:39
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    I guess this depends on the jurisdiction. For example, in Germany it’s impossible for an author to give away their full copyright. – unor Mar 4 '17 at 5:04
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Your profile says "IT consultant in Tokyo." If you were in the USA, I'd think your best bet would be to set up an account at http://www.copyright.gov and then officially register the copyright using http://www.copyright.gov/forms/formtxi.pdf (or, even more easily, directly online with no physical paperwork) which specifically allows you to assign the copyright to a third party, or as a "work for hire". I have no idea what your Tokyo situation might be, but would guess there's always some official/bureaucratic way of unambiguously accomplishing that same purpose in any country that recognizes the "rule of law".

As far as "without their knowledge" is concerned, and with respect to US copyright law, I think you're okay. I always, always register copyrights of my own programs, works-for-hire or not, with the US copyright office. And when programs are works-for-hire, I declare them as such, and assign the copyright to my client. And that's typically been without their knowledge. They don't know, and (I'm sure) don't really care. But the matter's never come under dispute, i.e., nobody (to my knowledge) has ever infringed any of these copyrights. If that ever did happen, I have no idea what the legal upshot might be, how courts might interpret these copyright registrations, etc, etc.

3

Could that work in principle? Is it OK to assign copyright to the FSF without their knowledge?

No. This would not work IMHO. e.g. you are eventually trying to assign your copyright to someone else. That someone would need to be aware of it somehow! So unless there is some agreement in place this would be likely moot and without effect.

Imagine this: say you assign your copyright to me without me knowing. Then later on someone sues me for copyright and patent infringement... How long do you think a judge would wait to actually redirect the case to go after you rather than me? I guess the best of a few seconds.

So not only this NOT ok, but in doing without my knowledge you could hurt me which is neither ethical nor what you are likely trying to achieve, correct?

You do not want to hurt me, do you?

If not, is there another foundation that accepts that?

You need to have agreement in place with that someone else. Some orgs are setup to receive copyrights such as the Linux Foundation, the Apache Foundation or the Eclipse Foundation.

Beside these, the Software Freedom Conservancy and Software in the Public Interest are examples organizations that are more general purpose "holdings" for free and open source projects.

But the main point in all cases is that what you are trying to achieve may not work out the way you think. Even if you assign your copyright somehow, you may in most case still be able to take that same private or relicense it under another license. And if your project community does not trust you or you do not trust yourself... you have IMHO another issue to solve first!

Another way that you could consider and is much simpler: do not use your name in a copyright statement. Use instead "XXX Authors" or "XXX Project" or similar where XXX is your project name. Large projects like Chromium do this routinely. No need for assignment and this makes clear that the copyright is distributed among the project contributors.

Finally:

  • consider using SPDX license identifiers rather than "Licensed under " as a better and cleaner shorthand. See this article for some details.
  • please write well structured copyrights that I can parse! Rather than "Copyright The project authors" use "Copyright (c) YYYY-YYYY The project authors." eventually ending with "All rights reserved."

And also:

"Even if you assign your copyright somehow, you may in most case still be able to take that same private or relicense it under another license": Very interesting, as you say that's the main point (and most important part) of your answer. So would you mind detailing how?

In the majority of the cases you are never assigning all your copyright rights. You are instead granting an unlimited license to your contributions to the so called "assignee". Therefore you are still free to relicense as you please these parts.

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    First time I hear that the simple fact of owning a copyright (without having ever modified or even seen the thing) might send you to jail. – Nicolas Raoul Mar 3 '17 at 11:00
  • "Even if you assign your copyright somehow, you may in most case still be able to take that same private or relicense it under another license": Very interesting, as you say that's the main point (and most important part) of your answer. So would you mind detailing how? Thank you! – Nicolas Raoul Mar 3 '17 at 11:13
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    "if your project community does not trust you or you do not trust yourself... you have IMHO another issue to solve first!": My question is theoretical, I believe I have never suffered trust issues in my own projects. But I have definitely been on the other side, hesitating to use a project that looks great but might evolve to proprietary too easily. – Nicolas Raoul Mar 3 '17 at 11:16
  • @NicolasRaoul answer updated – Philippe Ombredanne Mar 3 '17 at 13:12
  • Our lawyer friends seem to agree that if you only own the copyright "there would be no criminal or tort liability: law.stackexchange.com/questions/17633/… – Nicolas Raoul Mar 10 '17 at 2:57
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Even if it was considered OK to assign your copyright to someone else without their permission (in the US, it might be, but I'm pretty sure it's not OK in some other jurisdictions), then by doing so, you lose the rights to license your code to the general public. That would be the job of the foundation you assigned the copyright to to do so.

You have another solution: create a foundation / organization specific to your software and assign your copyright to it; state in its statutes what rules about licensing it must respect, and make sure that sufficiently many of your users / co-developers are members of this organization.

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