Post by Florian Weimer Post by Karan, Cem F CIV USARMY RDECOM ARL (US)
In my personal view, I think that Debian should lean towards licenses,
and discourage assignments where possible; that ensures that if
someone is a bad actor, then there will still be a chance to fork the
code and continue open development as all the good actors will still
have the necessary ownership over the parts that they contributed.
I think what you call “assignments” is about contributions to
upstream. This does not directly affect what Debian ships (unless a
software license stipulates that any change is automatically licensed
(assigned?) to the original developer). It is a personal decision of
each Debian/upstream contributor. I assume that this is the reason
why it rarely comes up on debian-legal.
In practice, I see zero benefit from assignment. One of the largest
holders of assignments uses different licenses for programs and
documentation, so you cannot generate API documentation from doctext
strings, and they do not respond at all to relicensing requests when
there's an obvious mistake and the wrong license is used for a source
file. That's two cases where assignments should greately simplify
matters, but that's not what happens in my experience.
When I use the term "assignment", I mean that the original copyright/IP owner
gives the ownership of the IP to some other entity. The problem is that the
new owner can choose new licensing terms as they fit, as the IP is now their
property. Choosing licensing means that there are many, many different actors
working together; if one arbitrarily changes the license terms for what they
own, it has no effect on the parts that they don't own. For example, if you
and I are working on a project together, I can choose to change the license on
the portions of the code that I own, but this has no effect on your
property, which makes it pointless for me to try to change the license as I
can't take over what you own. However, if you had assigned the IP rights in
what you developed to me, I could choose the license that material is
redistributed under, potentially sending you a cease & desist letter when
you try to redistribute material you generated.
The big advantage of licensing is that it requires the collusion of all of the
owners to change the license; if there is only one owner (Evil Corp), they can
change the license arbitrarily.
 Good OSS licenses ensure that it is impossible to retroactively revoke any
permissions granted, so material that is already out there should stay out
 Unless you were clever, and assigned the rights to using some contract
clauses that stipulated how the material could be distributed, etc.