Free software's white knight

Free Software Foundation's Eben Moglen talks about his plans and his philosophy on software freedom.

Eben Moglen, the longstanding legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation, became interested in computers at the age of 12. By 14, he was making money from writing computer programs.

"I paid for my college education, a Ph.D. in history and my law degree on the proceeds of being a programmer," he said.

Moglen spent several years coding for IBM, before turning away from the IT industry to become a lawyer. He worked as a law clerk for both the New York District Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before joining Columbia Law School in the late 1980s, where he still works as a professor of law and legal history.

While working at Columbia, he tackled his first major legal case relating to software freedom. Moglen explains that while "trawling a bulletin board" in the early 1990s he came across Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), the e-mail encryption program written by Phil Zimmerman. Moglen was impressed with the software, but realized that Zimmerman was exposing himself to potential legal issues, as U.S. legislation restricted the export of cryptographic software.

"I wrote an e-mail message to him (Zimmerman) saying, 'Congratulations, you're going to change the world, but you're also going to get into a ... load of trouble. When you do, call me,'" Moglen said. "I was just two weeks ahead of the police."

The U.S. government accused Zimmerman of violating U.S. regulations by publishing the PGP software on the Internet. Moglen helped Zimmerman pro bono, and eventually the government dismissed the case.

It was while he was working on the Zimmerman case that Moglen was contacted by Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, who was also in need of legal help. Moglen again offered to do the work for him for nothing.

"I said to him, 'I use Emacs (a text editor written by Stallman) every day, so it will be a long time before you run out of free legal help,'" Moglen said.

Initially, Moglen was spending about a fifth of his time doing legal work for the foundation, although this increased over time. But he points out that the time he has given is no different to the time that many free software developers have given to improve programs.

"I was giving him the time because it was something that needed to be done. Some of the work could only be done by a lawyer, some could only be done by Richard, and some could only be done by programmers. There were not as many lawyers willing to work on what needed doing for nothing than programmers," he said.

In addition to handling legal work for the foundation, Moglen now works with a number of other free software projects through the Software Freedom Law Center, which he helped launch in February 2005. He is also a director of the Public Patent Foundation, an organization that aims to limit abuse of the U.S. patent system.

ZDNet UK spoke to Moglen last week about the work he is doing with the Software Freedom Law Center, his plans for expansion, and his philosophy on software freedom.

Q: Last year, you helped launch the Software Freedom Law Center, which offers free legal advice to free software projects. How many projects are you working with?
Moglen: There are more takers than we can supply, so we have had to figure out how to best use the resources at our disposal. This involves triage--allocating our services to those who need it most.

There are five lawyers in this firm, and we have about a dozen major clients. That's about the client load I expect us to carry for the next six months or so. There are perhaps another half dozen people seeking our help who might become clients in the future, and there are also a similar number of people who need much less from us than our major clients do.

We also carry out activities that are of benefit to the broad community of developers. For example, this week we released a position paper about the situation regarding GPL (General Public License) violations in relation to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

What sort of help do you provide to free software projects? Who are your main clients?
Moglen: One aspect is the representation of free software projects that are in wide commercial use, so we need to be particularly sure about their legal situation. Another has to do with projects that need organizational help--tax questions or whatever.

The Free Software Foundation and the GPL revision process are consuming a great deal of time in the firm at the moment. In the next couple of weeks, there's going to be time spent on the One Laptop per Child project. We also have some work outstanding for the Apache Software Foundation and do work for Wine, Samba and OpenOffice.org.

What is the law center's involvement in the GPL 3 revision process?
Moglen: At present, I would characterize our effort this way: The Free Software Foundation, which is the author of the license, is primarily responsible for the license comment process. As the FSF's legal counsel, we are responsible for the management of legal questions. For that reason the center is involved in the discussion and drafting of the license--Richard and I are working together on it.

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