Update July 2007: Since I wrote this 3 long years ago the Planeshift project has continued to steam along. Shortly after these events the non-profit organization Atomic Blue was formed. Planeshift contributors are required to sign a copyright assignment document and no contribution from those who haven't signed the document is accepted. This makes it absolutely clear to all contributors that they do not maintain ownership of their work. For making this clear, this is a good practice. Talad, the still leader of the project, has compared Atomic Blue to the Free Software Foundation. I want to stress that, once again, Talad is not only wrong but deliberately trying to mislead. The stated goal of the Free Software Foundation is the promotion of Free Software and the associated ideals. The stated goal of Atomic Blue is to "make good games". Assigning your copyright to the FSF is a good way to protect the freedom of the users of that software. Assigning your copyright to Atomic Blue is not. Of course, if you have no interest in Free Software or the ideals it stands for, this isn't a problem.

A tale of too many bureaucratic nerds.

Around the middle of October 2004 I got a bit bored working on decompilers and decided to set out in search of an interesting open source project to contribute my free time to. Being a fairly reasonable C++ programmer and having a strong love for free software I hoped I could make some difference or at least be useful for a while. I found a project aiming to create a free-to-play MMORPG using an open source game engine: Planeshift.

I learnt early on that the "content" for the game was not going to be released under a free license. That is not unusual, although generally when you use proprietary content with a free software program you actually pay the people who are making your proprietary content. Planeshift wasn't doing this, but as I wasn't making any art, or sounds (the things covered under this restrictive license) it didn't really concern me at the time.

After performing a number of menial tasks I started to put forward my own ideas for the game. Well actually, I started by just implementing whatever the hell I wanted to implement but was quickly told off for not getting support for my ideas before implementing them. I found this particularly unusual because if the Planeshift-the-game people didn't like some feature to be found in Planeshift-the-engine they could simply turn that feature off before running the code on their server. But to keep the peace I decided to focus my energies on things that everyone seemed to want, at least until the current release cycle was over.

Early on a few warning bells sounded in my head in regards to the leader of the Planeshift project. When he talked about Open Source (he never seemed to use the words Free Software) he always seemed to apply requirements to other people and not to himself. When you consider that this guy was one of the Planeshift-the-game people and not one of the Planeshift-the-engine people (that is, he never wrote a line of code as far as I could see) you'd think I would have cottoned on to the idea that he thought he was somehow exempt. But I didn't.

Also in that early time there was some talk of "changing the license" and in particular about changing the license in the event that the GPL is ever "found illegal in court." Although ridiculous, for some reason this didn't cause me too much concern either. I guess I was just having too much fun coding.

On the 2nd of January 2005 I contacted the FSF in regards to a copyright violation on my contributions to the Planeshift project. The leader of the project had made a win32 binary release and placed the entire thing (art, binaries and third party libraries) under the restrictive license. I assumed this was just a mistake but I was not sure what rights if any I had being that I had written so little of the code that was being infringed.

The FSF responded two days later and informed me I had the same rights as every other contributor to the project, regardless of how much they had contributed. They instructed me to confront the creator of the distribution and inform him that he is in violation of my copyright, then point him at the documentation supplied by the FSF for bringing your distribution into accordance with a GPL license.

When I confronted the leader of Planeshift I was informed that there was no mistake. He had simply decided that the binary release of the game needed to be all under one license, and of course that license was the restrictive Planeshift license. Obviously I told him that he couldn't distribute my work in that manner. I was then horrified to discover that he believed I did not own the copyright on my own work. He tried a number of ways to justify this. He indicated that the Planeshift license on the web page said that (it doesnt), and that because each of the files in CVS has a banner like "Copyright 2002-2004, The Planeshift Team." that I had somehow implicitly agreed to assign my copyright to that team. Well, this certainly explained his "this doesn't apply to me" attitude towards licensing issues. As for the licenses of the third party libraries we were using (Crystal Space, Cel, and Cal3d) he was quite willing to violate those licenses until such time as the authors of those projects told him otherwise. If you have half a clue about copyright law you know that the only way to assign copyright is with a written legal document signed by all parties. You can't do it implicitly, and you can't do it accidently.

Anyone who has ever contributed anything to the FSF knows that they demand copyright assignment or they're not interested in receiving your work (the other alternative is to put your work in the public domain, that way anyone can get it). The reason they do this is so that if anyone violates the license on the work, the FSF can stand up in court as the owners of the copyright and defend the license. You get something very important when you assign your work to the FSF: the assurance that your work will always be licensed under a free license like the GPL. Obviously I had no such assurances from the Planeshift team after the little incident above. So when the leader of Planeshift told me I have to assign my copyright to the Planeshift team or I can't be a member of the Planeshift team, I obviously told him where to stick it.

I sent an email to the other members of the Planeshift team informing them of my ejection. As far as I know no-one else has assigned their copyright to the Planeshift team at the time of this writing, but this is probably because the leaders have yet to put the effort into printing out copyright assignment forms and mailing them to the members. Of course, it's also equally likely that they're persisting under the delusion that this isn't necessary and simply email or a license on a web page is all they need. Consulting a lawyer can be painful, especially if it means giving up some of your pride.

And it didn't end there. After much discussion the leaders decided they wanted to remove my changes from any future distributions - just in case they need to change the license in 5 years time and couldn't find me. My offer to assign my copyright to the FSF (who will no doubt be around and are easy to find) just struck fear into their hearts, I guess, cause they were even more adamant about removing my changes. So they asked me to supply a list of everything I had contributed and was claiming copyright on.

If you've ever had this experience you will know that it is particularly painful. As I was fumbling with cvs commands and making diffs of the 218 file commits that I had made over 2 months I got to thinking about the innocent users of Planeshift. Maybe I'm just a big softy, but I didn't want them to have to suffer the delays and annoyance that removing my changes from future releases would cause. So I bundled up the diffs I had produced and sent an email to the leaders of the project with a simple disclaimer of copyright. For any part of those diffs which I had a copyright claim on I placed that code in the public domain. That means anyone can take it and distribute it in any way they like. Of course, changes to a GPL program which are in the public domain are for all intents and purposes also under the GPL as once you seperate the changes from the GPL program they're pretty much useless.

Happy that I had washed my hands of the situation I decided to get back to working on decompilers. Not five minutes ago I received an email from the leader of the Planeshift project exclaiming that I can't claim copyright on the formating changes I had made to the code! Let this be a lesson to all, when you join a project where the leader has no concept of copyright and no respect for the philosphy of Free Software then expect to get into situations that are just Plain Shifty.

QuantumG
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