The FSF Europe recommends: avoid SourceForge
team at fsfeurope.org
Mon Nov 12 12:37:19 UTC 2001
The FSF Europe recommends: start avoiding SourceForge and use
alternative services instead!
Loïc Dachary: SourceForge drifting
[permanent URL of this document:
Over the past few months the SourceForge development facility, which
hosts a large number of Free Software projects, has changed its
policies. Features for exporting a project from SourceForge have been
removed. The implementation used to be exclusively Free Software but
is now based on non-free software. Finally, VA Linux has become
rather underhand in their attempts to grasp exclusive control of
SourceForge did a lot of good for the Free Software community, but
it's now time to break free.
* Locking users in a non-free software world
SourceForge brought to Free Software a unified and standard
development methodology based on modern tools. Before SourceForge,
such tools (bug tracking, cvs, web, support, forums, polls, news,
etc.) were available individually, but few developers used many of
them together, because they had to set up the combined facilities on
their own. SourceForge made the combination conveniently available for
both new and experienced developers.
Because of the convenience of SourceForge, many Free Software
developers have come to take this collection of features for granted,
and would be reluctant to go back to the old way of doing things.
Unfortunately, this means that when SourceForge itself takes a turn
for the worse, it tends to pull Free Software developers down with it.
The second important thing SourceForge did was to provide this
environment based exclusively on Free Software. By doing this,
SourceForge not only provided a powerful methodology for the Free
Software community, it also demonstrated what Free Software could do,
and promoted the use of Free Software. And since the special software
for SourceForge was itself free, anyone could set up a similar site.
The SourceForge software became permanently available to developers
everywhere. Developers in (say) India who can't afford the bandwidth
to use the SourceForge site could have the benefit of the same
features on their own server.
In August 2001, VA Linux reversed those policies and introduced
non-free software on the SourceForge server. In announcing this, Larry
Augustin (VA Linux CEO) claims that SourceForge.net users will "see
virtually no changes." That may be true if they narrow their vision
and consider only what job the site does and how to operate it. But
when we consider the implications, things are very different now.
Instead of a showcase for Free Software, SourceForge is now a demo
site for non-free software. There is a danger that the many thousands
of people registered on SourceForge will become increasingly hooked on
the SourceForge site and on features implemented by proprietary
As a Free Software developer, you are still free to use the
SourceForge server, but you won't have the freedom to copy, modify,
study and distribute the software it runs; you won't be free to set up
a similar site yourself, or adapt it to your own needs. The last
published release of the SourceForge software is one year old.
The move to non-free software was the culmination of a series of steps
designed to lock users in. There never was a way to fully extract
projects from SourceForge, but efforts were made in this
direction--then this year they were removed. At present the only
things you can get are the CVS tree and tracker data
/export/sf_tracker_export.php. Few people are aware of the latter
because it is undocumented. The export page explains how to use
scripts that don't exist anymore; implementation of facilities to ease
project extraction was stopped. The developer community is
exclusively made of VA Linux employees and a few people who are asked
not to disclose the current code.
The mailing lists archives, a major service of SourceForge recently
became unmaintained. Will it be replaced by a non-free software based
* Contributors' work appropriation
Here is what happened to me shortly before the announcement that
SourceForge would use and develop non-free software. Because I'm
listed as a contributor (in the sources and documentation) to the
SourceForge software, I received a request from VA Linux to assign
copyright to them. I was not surprised or unhappy with this; many
Free Software projects ask contributors to assign copyright of their
changes to the main author. Assigning copyright to a single holder is
a strategy for defending the GNU GPL more effectively, and I would
have been happy to cooperate in that regard.
But when I read the details of their copyright assignment, I saw major
problems. I was asked to assign copyright of my work that "is, or may
in the future be, utilized in the SourceForge collaborative software
development platform". The assignment was not limited to my
contribution to the SourceForge code, it potentially covered all my
past and future work if it was of some interest to SourceForge.
I was also expecting a promise that my work would be released under
the GNU GPL, but the assignment said nothing about Free Software. VA
Linux would be allowed to release the software I wrote under a
non-free software license and not let the community have it at all.
But I wasn't sure at the time if this was a real concern, because VA
Linux only produced and used Free Software. Two weeks later they
decided to introduce non-free software on SourceForge and that cast a
different light on the question.
VA Linux told me that they only sent the assignment to two people, in
the hope to refine it. We started a long discussion that lasted two
months. I assumed this discussion was to make the copyright
assignment more palatable to the Free Software community, so I worked
hard to give constructive feedback. Finally I was sent the version of
the copyright assignment produced by the legal department. I quote it
here in its entirety:
SourceForge Copyright Assignment
Thank you for your interest in contributing software code to
In order for us to include the code in our product, we will
need you to provide us with the rights to the code.
By signing this agreement, you, the undersigned, hereby assign
to VA Linux all right, title and interest in and to the
software code described below, and all copyright, patent,
proprietary information, trade secret, and other intellectual
property rights therein. You also agree to take all actions and
sign all documents (such as copyright assignments or
registrations) reasonably requested by VA Linux to evidence and
record the above assignments.
This was even more of a power grab than the first draft. "You give us
total control; we promise nothing". At this point, I knew that the
attempts to clarify the copyright assignment were a waste of time; VA
Linux clearly wasn't collecting copyright assignments in order to
enforce the GNU GPL.
* Escape entrapment
It's time for people who value freedom to escape from SourceForge. It
has become a tar pit from which escape will become increasingly
difficult. Development hosting platforms based completely on Free
Software flourish all over the world. You can create your own, join
an existing one or help write the underlying software. Some months ago
I helped to launch Savannah for the GNU project because I felt the
need of a collaboratively run platform. With friends and
co-developpers we are now re-writing and packaging distributed
development hosting software. The idea is to be able to install and
operate a SourceForge-like site within hours. Savannah will run this
software at the end of this year. At first it may have less
functionality than SourceForge, but it has a bright future because it
is rooted in a cooperative effort of people sharing Free Software.
SourceForge is free as in free beer because it was designed this
way. It was a very expensive and ephemeral gift to the Free Software
community. We could resent VA Linux for such a poisoned gift. On the
contrary I think we should thank them. They brought us methodology,
and taught us that a development hosting facility must be built in a
distributed and collaborative way, not by a single company controlling
everything from top to bottom. Of course that means everyone needs to
spend a little time developing and maintaining these hosting
facilities. We've finished our beer, it's time to win our freedom.
 VA Linux is the owner of the SourceForge domain name, provides and
owns the hardware, pays for the bandwidth, hire people maintaining
SourceForge. VA Linux is also the owner of most sites, the largest
concentration of Free Software related resources in the hands of a
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