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Supplementing the License--Contributor Agreements

While the license specifies what rights someone has to use the source code, many open-source projects also require that developers wishing to contribute to the project sign an additional form. Developers must state that they have the right to contribute their source code--that is, that they own it and that it does not belong to someone else. If the developer works for a company, the form has the developer state that the company grants the right to use the contributed code to the project. Note that even developers doing open-source work on their own time might still need to get approval from their employers because employee agreements often specify that the company owns anything employees invent. This is discussed further in the section Getting Approval as an Individual in Chapter 7.

The form also usually states that the developer grants to the project the right to freely use any patents and third-party IP used by the contributed code.

Some projects use the form to assign the copyright of the code to the project. Other projects, such as OpenOffice, use a joint copyright assignment so that both the project and the contributor retain full rights to use, modify, and redistribute the copyrighted work.

Developers usually need to sign the form only the first time they contribute code; the form then applies to any subsequent contributions. Note that requiring developers to sign such a form before accepting their contributions goes beyond the scope of the license. Developers are still free to exercise their rights to the code, but, if they want to participate with the specific project code base, they must sign the form. For example, to have a contribution included in the Sun-maintained OpenOffice project requires a joint copyright assignment. So far, several years after the start of the project, developers have been willing to go along with this. If the additional requirements of the contributor agreement form are not acceptable, then a developer may be motivated to join or create a new project, that is, to fork the project.

The actual text of contributor agreements for several open-source projects can be found in Appendix C.

Other project licenses, such as the VTK project license, state that by contributing to the project the outside developers give as a gift to the three copyright holders of VTK their contributed code and intellectual property. This is an implicit contributor agreement.

Innovation Happens Elsewhere
Ron Goldman & Richard P. Gabriel
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