Can Project Harmony Streamline Rules for Open Source Contributions?

by Sam Dean - Jun. 15, 2011Comments (0)

OStatic's open source theme of the day today is whether open source contributions are tracking with increases in open source usage, especially by businesses and organizations. In this post, we discussed how many organizations that now use open source aren't giving back at all. On this topic, one of the more interesting projects currently running isn't an open source software development project, but rather a coordinated effort to establish rules and guidelines for making contributions to open source. It's called Project Harmony, is heavily backed by Canonical, and on June 23 its first year of notable effort to establish rules for open source contributions will arrive.

According to the Project Harmony page:

"Project Harmony is a community-centered group focused on contributor agreements for free and open source software (FOSS). As a group, we represent a diverse collection of perspectives, experiences, communities, projects, non-profit and for-profit entities. In that diversity, we share a common belief in the future of FOSS, and a common interest in using our skills (whether they're legal, organizational, editorial, technical, or otherwise) to the benefit of collaborative FOSS communities."

The Register also has a good discussion of Project Harmony's goals, and notes:

"Canonical general legal counsel Amanda Brock started Harmony in May 2010. Brock tells us that Harmony has received contributions from more than 100 people in over 60 organizations, including developers and lawyers. Brock told The Reg that she started Harmony because she was frustrated by the number of different and confusing contribution agreements used by Canonical's projects."

Any time Canonical backs a big effort like this, there will be critics. Late last year, Bradley Kuhn had this to say about Project Harmony:

"Canonical, Ltd. has launched a manipulatively named product called 'Project Harmony'. They market this product as a 'summit' of sorts — purported to have no determined agenda other than to discuss the issue of contributor agreements and copyright assignment, and come to a community consensus on this. Their goal, however, was merely to get community members to lend their good names to the process."

Kuhn's post is worth reading for the arguments about copyleft, self-interest and more that it makes, but we shouldn't write Project Harmony off as it approaches its one-year deadline for delivering common open source contribution guidelines. Contributor agreements are confusing, and open source contributors are not always sure what rights, privileges and licenses pertain to their contributions.

These days, for example, when companies with huge portfolios of open source projects are acquired by software behemoths--as seen with Novell and Sun Microsystems--how contributions to projects are governed can change overnight. These kinds of issues don't really lend themselves to any unified body or set of rules that can help contributors retain rights or even observe laws.

On June 23, Project Harmony is wrapping up its first year, and The Register reports that the guidelines it has come up with for open source contributors will be publicized. Stay tuned as we see whether this heavily-backed project serves the community at large, or not.

Abhijit Prabhudan uses OStatic to support Open Source, ask and answer questions and stay informed. What about you?


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