14 February 2008

Code is Law is Code

Code and law have been inextricably mixed ever since Richard Stallman drew up the first GNU GPL. Indeed, in many ways, the logical processes for crafting both are similar - which is probably handy. Nonetheless, law does present special problems that hackers need to be aware of.

To provide some help, the Software Freedom Law Center has just put together a useful legal issues primer for open source and free software projects:

This Primer provides a baseline of knowledge about those areas of the law, intending to support productive conversations between clients and lawyers about specific legal needs. We aim to improve the conversation between lawyer and client, but not to make it unnecessary, because law, like most things in life, very rarely has clear cut answers. Solutions for legal problems must be crafted in light of the particulars of each client’s situation. What is best for one client in one situation, may very well not be best for another client in the same situation, or even the same client in the same situation at a later date or in a different place. Law cannot yield attainable certainty because it is dynamic, inconsistent, and incapable of mastery by pure rote memorization. This is why we do not provide forms or other tools for “do it yourself” lawyering, which are almost always insufficient and, in fact, can be very harmful to a project’s interests.

The specific topics addressed herein are:

1. copyrights and licensing,
2. organizational structure,
3. patents, and
4. trademarks.

They are presented in this order because that most closely aligns with the life-cycle of the legal needs of a typical FOSS project. When code is written, copyrights immediately come into being. The terms under which the owner of those copyrights allows others to copy, modify and distribute the code determine whether it is considered “free” and/or “open source.” Once a project gains speed, many benefits can be achieved by the creation of an organizational entity for the project that is separate from the project’s individual developers. After successful public release of a project, patent and trademark issues may arise that need attention.

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