"Sometimes Sun persuades open source developers to assign their code to Sun in order to have it accepted into a project, which I don't generally believe is a good idea," Perens added.
Journalist and former paralegal Pamela Jones, creator and editor of legal news site Groklaw, said Wilson and his colleagues were actually "project leads". "A project lead is like Linus [Torvalds, creator of Linux], the guy who makes final decisions when needed. But he isn't necessarily the owner of the code's copyrights," she said.
So why the distinction?
"Because some decisions only a copyright owner can make," according to Jones. "For example, the Linux kernel can't go GPLV3 unless each and every author of the code in it agrees. But Linus, who owns some of the copyrights, can't make that decision by himself, because he doesn't own all of it. The law is pretty exacting."
As this was a Sun project, Jones said, the project leads couldn't make such a governance change without at least informing Sun, for whom they were writing code. "You can't just do a coup d'etat," she said. "And you can see why: The leads, as it happened, were all laid off. Now what? It aced Sun right out of its own project, if the little change in the wording were to stand. How fair is that?
Stepping back to tackle the simmering debate on the contradiction between employees of for-profit companies working on open source projects, Perens said: "Even if Sun is legally right, having full control lie with one corporation is not a good way to run an open source project.
"In general open source is only going to work if you let it be a community led project. Sun has had a hard time learning this, and some of their open source projects have had a hard time getting outside contributors, because Sun has insisted on owning the whole thing," Perens said.
"I think this is another case where community's ways and legal ways are not yet fully in sync," Jones added. "Kind of like trademark. Some in the community don't understand why it matters to protect a trademark or how one goes about doing so, and misunderstandings can result.
"On the other hand, Sun is in the midst of a massive change to openness, and there's an educational process going on there too."®