Thursday, April 18, 2024

Project Harmony Takes Aim at Open Source Contribution Agreements

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BOSTON — Open source licenses help to define the terms and conditions of software use and redistribution. But what are the terms and condition under which developers actually contribute code? That’s the realm of software contribution agreements.

A new effort spearheaded by Amanda Brock, general counsel at Canonical, the lead sponsor of Ubuntu Linux, is trying to help solve the problem of contribution agreements. The effort is called Project Harmony, and it’s a multi-stakeholder project that aims to help provide some clarity and uniformity to software contribution agreements.

“The goal is to create standardized inbound software contribution agreements,” Brock said during a meeting here at LinuxCon. “By having a standardized document, that will take away an unnecessary burden from open source development.”

The Software Freedom Law Center is also participating in the effort, and is helping to draft the form that the project will use. All told, Brock said that more than 70 organizations are now participating in Project Harmony.

Novell kernel developer James Bottomley noted that open source is all about contribution and that’s why everyone has a different opinion on the issue of contribution agreement. He added that the Linux kernel currently has a simple contribution agreement, which essentially just asks where the code that is being contributed came from.

Bottomley warned that the contribution agreement space will be a difficult problem for Project Harmony to navigate.

“There will be as many goals as there are projects,” Bottomley said.

Brock pointed out that Project Harmony is not called “harmony” because the effort is harmonious. She added that there are numerous competing views on topic.

“Whether we like them or not, contribution agreements are not going away,” Brock said.

In a separate session about contributor license agreements, Red Hat attorney Richard Fontana argued that formal contribution agreements are usually bad, suggested that the legal benefits for the project are dubious.

“It also signals a lack of confidence in free software licenses that regular open source licenses aren’t good enough,” he said.

Fontana added that he is participating in Project Harmony, though he has mixed feeling about the effort.

“I do see how Project Harmony could be helpful in reducing a lot of bad agreements that people are using,” Fontana said. “At this point [I’m] happy to just be a participant.”

Eben Moglen, the director-counsel and chairman at the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), said he is not personally participating in Project Harmony. He noted that it’s an interesting problem that does need to be solved.

“So far I haven’t been participating in Project Harmony and I won’t until it’s serious,” Moglen said. “People are dealing with policies now and are not dealing with the significant heavy lifting yet.”

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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