Open Source Writers to Get Free Legal Help

Matt O'Conner
BURLINGAME, Calif. – Open Source Development Labs today announced that it is providing more than $4 million in seed funding to set up a nonprofit legal center to aid open-source projects and developers.

The Software Freedom Law Center will provide free legal advice to code writers to help them avoid legal challenges and disputes that could hinder the growth of open sourcing and adoption of the Linux operating system.

“The law center is being established to provide legal services to protect the legitimate rights and interests of free and open source software projects and developer,” said Eben Moglen, Columbia Law professor and founder of the SFLC.

From its offices in New York City, the SFLC will offer pro bono counsel and litigation support on issues of software licenses, patents, copyright and intellectual property law. The focus, according Moglen, is to head off potential problems before they become full-blown legal battles.

“This is a legal firm not involved so much in litigation and defending as it will be for counseling and advising and nurturing non-profits and to prevent millions of dollars in litigation,” Moglen said.

The SFLC will open initially with two full-time intellectual property attorneys on staff and two more expected to join this year. Morgan said he anticipates the staff will grow to 15 attorneys when the law center is fully ramped up.

Once a fringe technology, open source is now widely utilized in core applications used by airlines, banks and other industries, contributing to billions of dollars in revenue each year. As the popularity of open source has grown, so has the threat of legal attack.

Last year, Utah-based SCO Group Inc. slapped IBM with a $1 billion lawsuit. The company claimed that an IBM programming project inserted pieces of its Unix System V source code into the Linux kernel.

The lawsuit has sparked fears that similar suits could follow, including patent-based legal attacks on Linux itself. A study conducted last year by Open Source Risk Management estimated that Linux potentially infringes on as many as 283 patents.

“Both free and open source software face many emerging legal threats,” said Lawrence Lessig, Stanford Law School professor and SFLC board member. “We should be skeptical of legal mechanisms that enable those most threatened by the success of open source and free software to resist its advance.”

Open Source Development Labs announced the formation of the SFLC at Enterprise Linux Summit. OSDL is Linux a consortium funded by computing industry giants, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Intel Corp.