For something that creates so much discussion and confusion, it's surprising how it really boils down to just one sentence.
The Open Source and Free Software communities work on the principle that when I contribute patches to a project, I'm donating my time, expertise and resources. In return for that donation, I receive the time, expertise and resources of the rest of the community on equal terms to that with which they receive mine.

I benefit and the community as a whole benefits.

Certain projects make you sign agreements when you contribute that instead make the terms unequal, usually benefiting just one party. When you contribute under one of these agreements, the community may benefit, but one individual or company benefits more. They receive all your time, expertise and resources but reserve the right not to return the favor.

I'm a coder in my day job, and I give my time, expertise and resources to that company - and they aren't under any obligation to return that favor. In return they pay me.

A CLA is just an employment without a wage.
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