OSCON 1.2: Law for Geeks

by Geoff Broadwell

Related link: http://conferences.oreillynet.com/cs/os2005/view/e_sess/6913

Lawrence Rosen's Law for Geeks is more an extended Q&A than a tutorial, but it's entertaining and informative nonetheless.

Rosen has had considerable experience advising individuals, companies, non-profit groups, etc. on the law as it applies to Open Source. It was impressive how often someone would ask about an unusual hypothetical issue, only to have Rosen respond with a completely obtuse but related real world case. For example, Rosen once had a client who had worked years ago for a company that developed a snazzy piece of software, then decided to shelve it indefinitely and later went bankrupt. The client had kept a backup he'd made when the project (and company) were still alive. Can the client now release the code from the ancient backup? (Answer: the law is clear that the answer is no, but the reality is somewhat different.)

Drifting from question to question, Rosen took the time to debunk misconceptions (for example, "don't ask, don't tell" patent avoidance doesn't protect you as much as you think), explain various nuances between related legal concepts, and serve quite a few reality checks along with the theory and code of law.

There were, however, a few key threads throughout:

  • The devil is in the details, and the practice of law is usually much greyer than the letter of law. Many decisions around intellectual property issues are more about risk analysis than right and wrong.

  • Get a lawyer's advice (did you expect him to say otherwise?). Recent case law makes this even more attractive, as all you've got to lose is the fee. Still, you need to filter his advice through your brain.

  • Industry standards should be free from patent restrictions (or be freely licensed in Open Source-favorable terms). Though obvious to most of us, this is a current battle that he and others are waging within various standards bodies.

  • Current Open Source licenses could use a lot of improvement, and current law is at best an imperfect match for the software industry. Thankfully, there are growing ranks of OSS-aware lawyers who are working to improve this situation.

Strangely, the talk was valuable less on a direct knowledge-transfer level (though there was certainly a lot of that), but more on a meta-level, convincing me that these issues are difficult and important and pat answers are not enough. I made sure to pick up Rosen's business card . . . .

Have you gotten legal advice on your open source project or presence? Was it worth the time and money you invested?