An Angel for Open Source
Pages: 1, 2, 3

Koman: So, do you see that as something that you can help with as a non-developer looking at the license language?

Samuelson: Well, I'd sure like to think so. On the other hand, I've spent enough time talking to people about open source versus free software to know that it's not going to be a rift easily healed. On the other hand, a part of what can be helpful is to have something like this Web site that annotates licenses and helps people understand -- you know, what are the differences between and among the licenses? And it may be that certain things are pretty starkly different, but maybe for other things, this license says it this way and that license says it that way, but in fact they more or less mean the same thing. And it would be helpful, I think. And maybe it would help to reduce some of the tension if that information was more clearly available.

Koman: Has there been any legal clarity on some of the requirements of open source licenses? Simply, does anything happen to you if you sign a license but then violate it?

Samuelson: There's certainly no cases of which I am aware where there's been a decision that either enforced or declined to enforce an open source license, and in many of the cases that could come up there's been kind of a negotiated settlement. But there are still some pretty substantial open questions about certain aspects of open source licenses. I mean, one of the standard rules of contract law is that a contract binds you and me, but it doesn't necessarily bind the whole world, and one of the things that open source licenses try to do is bind not only you and me but kind of everyone else in the world, and so far as I know that's not been legally challenged yet. But there are some significant issues about its portability, and I think there are some good arguments one way or the other, but it is an example of something that is not entirely clear.

Koman: So would you see going forward the need to shore up some of the more aggressive language in some of the licenses?

Samuelson: No. One of the things that could result from this kind of Web site project might be a kind of best practices, with some examples of best practices of licensing. These licenses may have clauses in them that are not 100 percent absolutely guaranteed enforceable, but have language that is more likely than similar language in some other licenses to be upheld. This is again a way to take advantage of the expertise of the very talented law students that we have. And they are excited about open source, and they think the projects in the open source area are really terrific, and so it's a place where we have the talent and energy -- the students can actually get credit for essentially lawyering on behalf of these public interest organizations, and the public interest organizations then get some representation that they couldn't have otherwise had, so this is one of those rare situations where you have win-win.

Koman: How many students are involved in the clinic?

Samuelson: About ten a semester. Some of them take it for more than one semester, some of them only take it for a semester. Sometimes it varies a little bit, but probably no more than twelve.

Koman: And open source isn't the only area you're concentrating in.

Samuelson: We do a bunch of other things. We have projects on telephone privacy, and we have some things about digital rights management, and we have a project about some standards-setting in the DRM area. We wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Brewster Kahle's Internet Archives to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Eldredge v. Ashcroft case.

Koman: And I also noticed a project on AIDS in Sri Lanka.

Samuelson: Yeah, isn't that great? This is actually a collaboration between the Human Rights Clinic and the High-Tech Clinic, because the Human Rights Clinic has certain expertise but, gee, the issue about licensing of AIDS medication has intellectual property and high-technology issues associated with it, and so a nice kind of collaboration was able to happen there.

Koman: Finally, what's the mechanism for open source developers and public interest groups to hook up with you?

Samuelson: Well, there will be a birds of a feather session at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in San Diego, where two of the people from the High-Tech Clinic will come down and just talk about things that are of interest and concern to the open source community. The folks that are coming down are going to have some ideas and suggestions about the kinds of projects that we might try to undertake and see whether that makes sense to people. Apart from that, the clinic is open for business, so if people have projects or have concerns that they want to try to involve the clinic in, then they can contact me or Deirdre Mulligan and we'll see if we can help out.

Richard Koman is a freelancer writer and editor based in Sonoma County, California. He works on SiliconValleyWatcher, ZDNet blogs, and is a regular contributor to the O'Reilly Network.

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