OSDL Helps Fund New Open-Source Legal Center

The new Software Freedom Law Center will help open-source developers fight legal disputes over intellectual property and patent rights.

BURLINGAME, Calif.—The open-source industry is stepping up to the plate to protect its developers and projects from legal attack.

The Open Source Development Labs, a global consortium established to accelerate the adoption of Linux, has raised more than $4 million for a newly established intellectual property fund that will provide the seed money for the new Software Freedom Law Center. Eben Moglen, the legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation and a Columbia University law professor, said Monday that he will run the independent legal center, which will be based in New York City.

The new centers mission is to provide help to nonprofit open-source developers and projects that do not otherwise have access to legal services, such as asset stewardship, licensing, license defense and litigation support, and legal consulting and training.

This move follows the creation last year of a $10 million Linux Legal Defense Fund, which was established to provide legal support for Linux kernel founder Linus Torvalds and companies subjected to Linux-related litigation by The SCO Group Inc.

Stuart Cohen, the CEO of the OSDL, said that while some of its member companies had donated funds for the new center, none of the annual fees paid by member organizations had been used for this purpose.

"Some members, non-members, and individuals all contributed seed capital to the center," he said, declining to name any of the donors. The new center would also be independent and not affiliated with the OSDL, Cohen said at a press conference here at the OSDL Enterprise Linux Summit on Monday.

The Law Center will initially have two full-time intellectual property attorneys on staff, and is expected to grow to four attorneys later this year, he said.

The issue of intellectual property and patent rights is currently getting a lot of attention, with Karen Copenhaver, the general counsel at Black Duck Software Inc., spending three hours on the topic in an earlier session at the summit.

But while the new law centers initial client list includes the Free Software Foundation and the Samba Project, it will not serve publicly traded companies, Moglen said at the event. "I have represented the Samba team since 1997 and continue to represent them.

"I also intend to work with other nonprofit foundations like that which provides the Debian distribution. We will also provide services to other smaller clients and projects going forward, which will be the gems of the future, as well as some very well-known ones," he said.

Moglen was also quick to point out that the new center would not be a GNU GPL (General Public License) organization. "It is an organization to help people choose free software and the right license. We will provide services to those who meet that criteria, even if they support proprietary licenses as well as open ones," he said.

Free software had become the source of billions of dollars of IT value globally, but some parties had been aggrieved by this and had created fear, uncertainty and doubt about the legal basis for—and usage of—free software, he said.

"This law firm will be engaged in helping and advising and nurturing those who make free software, and it will represent those mainstay projects of the free software world as well as new projects that are the stars of tomorrow." Moglen said.

The center would provide them the legal assistance today to prevent such assaults as those from SCO over the past two years, Moglen said, adding that his goal was to use the resources wisely and to get the maximum amount of legal certainty for minimum cost, and to get legal services and advice to programmers to help them know what there legal rights were.

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Turning to the thorny and complex issue of software licenses, Moglen said the next version of the GNU GPL version 3, which is under development as first reported by eWEEK, is of critical importance to the maturation of free software. "The world has many free software licenses, many for just one project. This proliferation of licenses poses problems to the free transfer and movement of code," he said.

There were a relatively small number of licenses that could be used to fit the needs and requirements of the open-source community, he said, adding that far more attention would be paid to globalization in GPL version 3.

A board of directors will oversee the new law center and is comprised of Moglen; Diane Peters, the general counsel at OSDL; Daniel Weitzner, the principal research scientist at MITs Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; and Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford Law School professor and author.

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