Harmony is an effort that was begun and shepherded by Amanda Brock, the general counsel at Canonical, makers of Ubuntu Linux. The intent was to create a small collection of consistently-worded contribution agreements (both licenses and assignments) for free and open source projects to use to reduce the friction such agreements can cause when they’re encountered for the first time by corporate counsel unfamiliar with FOSS licensing. There’s a great description on the website.
“Contribution agreements are one available tool out of many in an overall legal strategy for FOSS developers, the entities that distribute their work, and the users of their work. We hope that our work will enable more people to contribute code, by reducing the cognitive cost and legal time of reviewing contribution agreements. However, the fact that we're working to improve this one tool doesn't imply that we think it is a necessary part of all FOSS legal strategies. Many successful FOSS projects choose not to use contribution agreements, and we are hearty advocates of those projects, and of a broad variety of strong legal strategies built using a broad variety of tools.”
There are a variety of opinions on whether contribution agreements are necessary, and some excellent discussions on assignment versus licensing one’s contributions, and whether one is doing so with a corporation that might then “close” the project work into a proprietary product, or with a non-profit foundation designed to promote and protect the project for all and sundry to use. Indeed most of the heat of the debate exists on their need.
There is no one right answer or one true software IP management system. For-profit companies will implement different systems against different FOSS projects depending upon whether they’re using and contributing to an external project, creating a complementary community around their own project, or embedding a project into a product or service with the product’s attendant business model. Non-profit foundations will implement different systems for FOSS projects depending upon the needs of their members and constituents, possibly based on whether they’re a trade organization or a public good organization, or as a way to create a neutral space in which to collaborate.
Companies contributing software to a FOSS project will want to understand what’s happening to their software ownership, and this will be different to what a lone developer does when they contribute to a project in the context of who owns the project and what their employment agreement might dictate.
It’s interesting to see the variance across a number of FOSS foundations and projects, and how history and timing plays a role in the examples.
As the world of software IP management continues to evolve and mature, we don’t have the liberty of ignoring the changes brought on by the law and court cases involving software copyrights and patents, not as individuals and certainly not as companies. Neither do we get to follow Dick the Butcher’s suggestion in Henry the Sixth and kill all the lawyers. The Harmony Project is an attempt to provide some clarity to the discussion by creating a set of usable documents (with their guide, Creative Commons-style agreement generator, and FAQ) and the first version of the documents will be a stake in the ground to anchor debate for some time. I’ve great confidence that the agreements will continue to evolve with discussion and debate, and the core Harmony team should be applauded for their efforts to date.
Disclosure: While I'm certainly not part of the core team, I participated in quite a number of the Harmony teleconferences over the past six months or so.
Stephen is the Technical Director of the Outercurve Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation with the goal of bringing software developers and open source community members together to participate in open source projects.
Stephen has worked in the IT industry since 1980 as both customer and vendor. He was most recently a consultant on software business development and open source strategy. His customers included Microsoft, the Eclipse Foundation, the Linux Foundation. He's an adviser to Ohloh (acquired by SourceForge), Bitrock, Continuent, and eBox.
He organized the agenda, speakers and sponsors for the inaugural Beijing Open Source Software Forum as part of the 2007 Software Innovation Summit in Beijing. Stephen was VP Open Source Development Strategy at Optaros, a business manager at Microsoft on open source, and VP R+D and founder at Softway Systems, a venture-backed company that developed a UNIX portability environment for NT before being acquired by Microsoft. He was a long time participant and officer at the IEEE and ISO POSIX standards groups, representing both USENIX and EurOpen (E.U.U.G.) and a regular speaker and writer on open systems standards since 1991.
His personal blog: Once More unto the Breach.
Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenrwalli