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Open-Source Legal Center Offers Free Help, Licensing Advice

New law center, founded with $4 million in OSDL seed money, will offer free legal help to non-profit open-source projects, developers and customers.

Paula Rooney

February 1, 2005

4 Min Read

The Open Source Development Lab (OSDL) has forked over $4 million to seed the creation of a law firm offering pro bono counsel to open-source projects and developers on thorny legal issues and licenses.

At the Enterprise Linux Summit Monday, held in Burlingame, Calif., Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen announced the formation of the Software Freedom Law Center, an independent legal group funded initially by the Beaverton, Ore.-based OSDL. Moglen has long served as General Counselor for the Free Software Foundation (FSF, also known as GNU.org).

An intellectual-property expert on software copyright law and a major backer of the FSF, Moglen will run the Law Center from New York with two full-time IP attorneys on staff. The law center plans to hire four more attorneys later this year.

Moglen said work has begun on a major revision of the General Public License version 3, but he pledged that the law center will be independent and "license neutral."

The law center won't advocate one particular type of open-source license over another, but will serve to "dispel hundreds of millions of dollars of FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] and prevent billions of dollars of litigation," Moglen said. The law center will provide free counsel and risk analysis advice about choosing licenses "to maximize the amount of legal certainty and lowest costs possible," he said.

While the SCO Group's lawsuit against IBM heightened corporate concerns about copyright and patent litigation, the proliferation of many types of open-source licenses is a more significant concern for developers and customers considering deployment of open-source software, industry observers say.

Roughly 68 Open Source Initiative (OSI)-approved open-source licenses are used by open-source projects and developers. Such licenses include the GPL, used by the Linux project backed by the OSDL; the Mozilla Public License, used by the Mozilla project; and the Apache License, used by the Apache Project, according to the OSI.

GPL version 3, which will succeed the 15-year-old GPL version 2, will focus on global licensing uniformity and reducing differences among licenses. The idea is to find "common ground" so customers can choose among three or four "styles" of open-source licenses, Moglen said.

According to Lawrence Rosen, an attorney with Rosenlaw & Einschlag, Ukiah, Calif., who spoke at the summit, there are five categories of open-source licenses: academic licenses such as Apache; reciprocal licenses such as the GPL; commercial licenses such as those held by IBM, Mozilla and Sun Microsystems; Standards and Testing Licenses, such as Open Group and W3C licenses; and content licenses, such as the Creative Commons licenses designed for music, art, software and other works of expression.

Rosenlaw said potential open-source users are more concerned about problems that could crop up during corporate transactions and large customer sales. Software vendors are more worried about potential legal and public relations issues for products they develop using open-source software than they are about potential copyright or patent litigation, he said.

Several sources agreed that legal advice is necessary for those considering open-source licenses, and that a non-profit law center will help developers and customers.

"We had this discussion with our lawyers two years ago, but probably more people would feel safer about it [with the law center]," said Jeremy Allison, a developer on the open-source Samba project.

Chris Maresca, a principal at Olliance Consulting Group, an open-source consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif., that--with help from Schwab, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft--published a white paper on IP issues, works closely with several law firms to provide clients with strategic, legal and tactical advice.

"We have a whole legal and compliance program. This is not new; our clients have been worrying about it for three years, and it's really just a part of the normal software development cycle," Maresca said. "Since we do strategy, we are mostly concerned about how legal issues impact management and business practices."

But while such issues might trouble enterprise customers, one solution provider says copyright and patent issues are of little concern to partners and customers in the SMB space.

"My feeling is that these issues apply to large organizations that are rolling out hundreds of servers," said Alex Zaltsman, managing director of Exigent, Morristown, N.J.

Yet solution providers and high-tech companies that are developing software based on open-source code must ensure they are compliant with open-source licenses and issues.

After a full day of open-source licensing sessions at the Enterprise Linux Summit, Network Appliance Vice President and Chief Architect Brian Pawlowski said the maturity and widespread use of open-source software is forcing many companies to establish corporate policies to deal with licensing issues. "I am working within NetApp engineering to provide guidelines and processes for managing open source to simplify our lives as engineers, and to allow us to engage the open-source communities as our business needs dictate," he said. "It's an inevitable result of the maturation of the industry."

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