GitLab drops the CLA to become more community friendly and follows best practice in Free Software. As a result Debian and GNOME plan to migrate their communities and projects to GitLab.

There are many different CLA's but companies usually use it to get all the rights on the contributed code so that they can for example relicense (also proprietary) as they wish. That's usually bad for a community because it prevent a level playing field where everyone has the same rights and duties. By contrast, with the DCO the developer only guarantees that he has the necessary rights to contribute under the projects license. But no rights are transferred.

What system the have been using till that moment?

They used a contributor license agreement which more or less transfered all the rights from the individual contributor to the company.

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