Open Source Copyright Assignment Example

Free Software Foundation Copyright Assignment Form



(The following is sent in an email message to a potential contributor from a developer working on an FSF project. For more details see:

The way to assign copyright to the Foundation is to sign an assignment contract. This is what legally makes the FSF the copyright holder so that we can register the copyright on the new version. I'm assuming that you wrote these changes yourself; if other people wrote parts, we may need papers from them.

If you are employed to do programming (even at a university), or have made an agreement with your employer or school saying it owns programs you write, then you and we need a signed piece of paper from your employer disclaiming rights to the program.

The disclaimer should be signed by a vice president or general manager of the company. If you can't get at them, anyone else authorized to license software produced there will do. Here is a sample wording:

Digital Stimulation Corporation hereby disclaims all copyright interest in the changes and enhancements made by Hugh Heffner to the program "seduce," also including any future revisions of these changes and enhancements.

Digital Stimulation Corporation affirms that it has no other intellectual property interest that would undermine this release, or the use of the Program, and will do nothing to undermine it in the future.

<signature of Ty Coon>, 1 April 1987
Ty Coon, President of Vice, Digital Stimulation Corp.

(If your employer says they do have an intellectual property claim that could conflict with the use of the program, then please put me in touch with a suitable representative of the company, so that we can negotiate what to do about it.)

IMPORTANT: When you talk to your employer, *no matter what instructions they have given you*, don't fail to show them the sample disclaimer above, or a disclaimer with the details filled in for your specific case. Companies are usually willing to sign a disclaimer without any fuss. If you make your request less specific, you may open Pandora's box and cause a long and unnecessary delay.

Below is the assignment contract that we usually use. You would need to print it out, sign it, and snail it to:

Richard Stallman
545 Tech Sq rm 425
Cambridge, MA 02139

Please try to print the whole first page below on a single piece of paper. If it doesn't fit on one printed page, put it on two sides of a single piece of paper.

Don't forget to put down the date when you sign! Spell out the month name--don't use a number for the month. Dates using a number for the month are ambiguous; 2/8/95 means one thing in the US and another in Europe.

Snail a copy of the employer's disclaimer as well.

Please send me email about what you decide to do. If you have any questions, or would like something to be changed, ask via email.



For good and valuable consideration, receipt of which I acknowledge, I, NAME OF PERSON, hereby transfer to the Free Software Foundation, Inc. (the "Foundation") my entire right, title, and interest (including all rights under copyright) in my changes and enhancements to the program NAME OF PROGRAM, subject to the conditions below. These changes and enhancements are herein called the "Work." The work hereby assigned shall also include any future revisions of these changes and enhancements hereafter made by me.

Upon thirty days' prior written notice, the Foundation agrees to grant me non-exclusive rights to use the Work (i.e. my changes and enhancements, not the program which I enhanced) as I see fit; (and the Foundation's rights shall otherwise continue unchanged).

For the purposes of this contract, a work "based on the Work" means any work that in whole or in part incorporates or is derived from all or part of the Work.

The Foundation promises that all distribution of the Work, or of any work "based on the Work," that takes place under the control of the Foundation or its assignees, shall be on terms that explicitly and perpetually permit anyone possessing a copy of the work to which the terms apply, and possessing accurate notice of these terms, to redistribute copies of the work to anyone on the same terms. These terms shall not restrict which members of the public copies may be distributed to. These terms shall not require a member of the public to pay any royalty to the Foundation or to anyone else for any permitted use of the work they apply to, or to communicate with the Foundation or its agents in any way either when redistribution is performed or on any other occasion.

The Foundation promises that any program "based on the Work" offered to the public by the Foundation or its assignees shall be offered in the form of machine-readable source code, in addition to any other forms of the Foundation's choosing. However, the Foundation is free to choose at its convenience the media of distribution for machine-readable source code.

The Foundation promises to give or send me, upon reasonable prior notice and payment of a fee no more than twenty times the cost of the necessary materials and postage, a copy of any or all of the works "based on the Work" that it offers to the public or that it has offered within the past six months, or that it distributed for the first time within the past six months. For works that are programs, the machine-readable source code shall be included. My request shall detail whether I wish to receive all such works or specific works. My choice of works to request may affect the cost and therefore the fee.

I hereby agree that if I have or acquire hereafter any patent or interface copyright or other intellectual property interest dominating the program enhanced by the Work (or use of that program), such dominating interest will not be used to undermine the effect of this assignment, i.e. the Foundation and the general public will be licensed to use, in that program and its derivative works, without royalty or limitation, the subject matter of the dominating interest. This license provision will be binding on my heirs, assignees, or other successors to the dominating interest, as well as on me.

I hereby represent and warrant that I am the sole copyright holder for the Work and that I have the right and power to enter into this contract. I hereby indemnify and hold harmless the Foundation, its officers, employees, and agents against any and all claims, actions or damages (including attorney's reasonable fees) asserted by or paid to any party on account of a breach or alleged breach of the foregoing warranty. I make no other express or implied warranty (including without limitation, in this disclaimer of warranty, any warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE).

Agreed: [signature]

For the Free Software Foundation,

Richard Stallman, President:

Date: [Write the month with LETTERS]



Please print the following as a separate page.

Please email a copy of the information on this page to, if you can, so that our clerk doesn't have to type it in. Use your full name as the subject line.

[For the copyright registration, what country are you a citizen of......? What year were you born? Please write the information here; sending it separately (e.g. in a message) makes extra clerical work for us.]

[Please write your email address here.]

[Please write your snail address here, so we can snail a copy back to you.]

[Which files have you changed so far, and which new files have you written so far?]

Innovation Happens Elsewhere
Ron Goldman & Richard P. Gabriel
Send your comments to us at IHE at

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This text is based on "When a Company Asks for Your Copyright" on This text is now out-of-date. For the current version of the article, and translations, please read it at explains why selling exceptions is acceptable, though only barely. By contrast, releasing a purely proprietary version is outright wrong, like any other proprietary software.

Companies normally sell exceptions using code they themselves have developed. Since they hold the copyright on that code, they can legally distribute it in any manner, even in multiple manners in parallel. But what happens when you publish a modified version of that free program, and the company wants to include your changes in its version?

Since you got the program under the GPL, when you distribute a modified version you have to license it under the GPL. If the company receives a copy, it will be able to use those changes under the GPL; it won't be allowed to include your changes in that program and sell exceptions for it. It also won't be able to release purely proprietary versions containing your code. If this is the outcome you want, you get it by default. However, if the company intends to sell exceptions, it will probably decide not to use your changes.

Suppose, though, that you're not opposed to selling exceptions and you're willing to let the company do so while including your changes in the program. You can agree to this, but you need to be careful about what you sign, or you may be surprised by the results.

The company will probably invite you to assign or license your copyright to the company. That in itself is not inherently bad; for instance, many GNU software developers have assigned copyrights to the FSF. However, the FSF never sells exceptions, and its assignment contracts include a commitment to distribute the contributor's code only with source and only permitting redistribution.

The company's proposed contract may not include such a commitment. It might instead let the company use your changes any way it likes. If you sign that, the company could do various things with your code. It could keep selling exceptions for a program including your code. It could release purely proprietary modified or extended versions including your code. It could even include your code only in proprietary versions. Your contribution of code could turn out to be, in effect, a donation to proprietary software.

It is up to you which of these activities to permit, but here are the FSF's recommendations. If you plan to make major contributions to the project, insist that the contribution agreement require that software versions including your contributions be available to the public under a free software license. This will allow the developer to sell exceptions, but prevent it from using your contributions in software that is only available under a proprietary license.

If your contributions are smaller, you could accept a weaker condition that the company make your contributions available in a free software release as well as possibly in nonfree programs. This would allow the company to use your contributions in modified software that's only available under a proprietary license. Releasing proprietary software is never a good thing, but if your changes are smaller, it might be more important to improve the free version than resist the nonfree versions.

You can control these outcomes by insisting on the proper conditions in the contract. To allow selling exceptions for the program that contains your code, but refuse to let the company release purely proprietary versions containing your code, you can insist on a condition more or less like this:

Any program based on (as defined in GNU General Public License version 3) Hacker's code that FOO distributes shall be made available by FOO under a) the “GNU General Public License (GPL), version 2 or later”, or b) the licensing in (a), above, but with “2” replaced by any higher existing GPL version number. Provided FOO makes the program available as source code gratis to the public in this way, it may also distribute the identical program to some of its users under terms permitting them to link the program's code with nonfree code and release the combination in binary form under a license of their own choosing.

Or, if what you object to is that some variant of your code might be released solely in a proprietary version, you can insist on a condition more or less like this:

Any program based on (as defined in GNU General Public License version 3) Hacker's code that FOO distributes shall be made available by FOO under a) the “GNU General Public License (GPL), version 2 or later”, or b) the licensing in (a), above, but with “2” replaced by any higher existing GPL version number. Provided FOO makes the program available as source code gratis to the public in this way, it may also distribute the same version of Hacker's code in other programs released under other licenses of its own choosing.

If the program is released under the GNU Affero GPL, then add “Affero” before “General”, change “GPL” to “AGPL”, change “2 or” to “3 or”, and it could make sense to replace “that FOO distributes” with “that FOO distributes, or deploys on a server accessible to users other than FOO”.

The FSF has had these texts reviewed by a lawyer, but you should get your own legal advice before using them.

When a company says which of these conditions it will accept, that will show you how far it plans to depart from the principles of free software. Then you can respond to ensure your work will contribute to the free software community and not be diverted into proprietary software.

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