Saturday, April 15, 2017

Why I didn't sign the Scala CLA

I wrote this shortly after I opted not to sign the Scala CLA in 2015. Since Scala still requires a CLA in its contribution process, and even contributing to Typelevel Scala effectively requires assent to the same unjust mechanism, I have decided to publish it at last.

One of the most important advantages of Free, Open Source Software (FOSS) is that it returns power to the community of users. With proprietary software, power is always concentrated in the hands of the maintainer, i.e. the copyright holder.

The [more] equal status of maintainer and user in FOSS creates a natural check. It keeps honest, well-intentioned maintainers honest, and permits the community to reform around new maintainership should a formerly good situation change. And circumstances can always change.

This equal status does not fall out of the sky; it is mediated by a legal constitution: the license(s) of the software and documentation developed by the project. When users accept the license terms—by redistributing the code or changes thereto—they agree to this constitution. When maintainers accept contributions under that license, as in an ordinary CLA-less project, under inbound=outbound, they agree to the very same constitution as the users.

A project with a CLA or ©AA is different. There is one legal constitution for the users, and one for the maintainers. This arrangement always privileges the maintainers by

  1. removing privileges from the users and reserving them for the maintainers, and
  2. removing risk from the maintainers and reserving it for the users.

Despite fine words in the Scala CLA about “being for your protection as well as ours” (to paraphrase), the terms that follow are, with few exceptions, utterly and unapologetically nonreciprocal.

I believe this situation is acceptable in some cases; the only such agreements I have signed without regret are with the FSF. But no CLA or ©AA I have ever seen makes the strong reciprocal promises that the FSF does, and it is anyway unreasonable to expect any contributor to so carefully evaluate the likely future behavior of each organization maintaining some software they might like to contribute to. For myself, I decided that, given my past regrets, and the degree to which EPFL’s agreement transfers power to its own hands and risk back to the contributors’, there was no way I would come to trust EPFL sufficiently to sign.

This is not to say that EPFL would be an ill-behaved caretaker! But by what means could I make that determination? Moreover, why is it even necessary?

The closest thing to an acceptable rationale for the Scala CLA is that it addresses legal concerns left unmentioned by the license, e.g. patent grants. These are important concerns, too frequently unaddressed by projects using minimalist licenses such as Scala uses. But the appropriate place to do this is to address these concerns in the basic legal constitution for all: the license. If these guarantees are so important that EPFL must have them, then why should we, as contributors, not ask them of EPFL, via inbound=outbound? If these terms would make the license “too complex”, no longer minimal, what about their placement in a CLA will make them any better understood?

It’s my hope that Scala will abandon the CLA, and switch to a lightweight option that holds true to the principles of FOSS projects. A couple options are

  1. A formal license-assent-only mechanism, like Selenium’s.
  2. A Developer Certificate of Origin, like the Linux kernel.

This may or may not be coupled with the switch to a longer license that incorporates stronger patent protections, like Apache License 2.0. This should alleviate the concerns that are currently addressed by the CLA, but in a way that is equitable to the Scala project, all of its contributors, and all of its users.

1 comment:

Michael Slinn said...

I also did not sign, and I attempted to discuss the reasons why in the scala-discuss Google Group. The response? I was banned by the moderator (a Lightbend employee), with no appeal possible. Apparently bans are a life-long status. My counter-response was to withdraw from all Scala-related discussion groups associated with Lightbend. Sad.

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