Lawyers ride shotgun for open source

A law center led by Eben Moglen and others will provide free services to developers who use open-source or free-software methods.

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Stephen Shankland
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A prominent intellectual property lawyer in the open-source movement is helping launch a center to provide free services to developers who use the collaborative programming method.

Eben Moglen, a Columbia University law professor who has represented the Free Software Foundation in legal cases, said that he will help run the new Software Freedom Law Center, which is set to be announced on Tuesday.

The center said in a statement that it will employ two full-time intellectual property attorneys, who will help provide consulting services to nonprofit open-source organizations. The staff count is expected to expand to four later in 2005. The help they provide could include training lawyers, supporting litigation, dealing with licensing problems and keeping managing contributions to open-source projects, the center said.

"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 developers, who often do not have the means to secure the legal services they need," Moglen said in a statement.

An initial $4 million to fund the New York-based center came from Open Source Development Labs, a Linux consortium funded by computing industry giants such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and others.

Legal issues surrounding copyright and patent law are getting thornier in the open-source realm. One start-up, Black Duck Software, sells software to keep open-source and proprietary software from intermingling, while another, Open Source Risk Management (OSRM), sells insurance to cover legal costs for companies worried about being sued over using the software.

At the same time, Linux rivals Microsoft and Sun Microsystems have been touting the legal protections that come with their products.

While there aren't many cases of legal attacks on open-source software, the notion of such suits isn't academic. The SCO Group sued AutoZone in 2004, arguing that Linux violates Unix copyrights SCO has claimed. And Microsoft's Steve Ballmer drew public attention to an OSRM study that found Linux could violate as many as 283 patents.

In addition, an HP executive warned in a 2002 memo that Microsoft planned a patent-based attack on open-source software. One particular package that it considered as a potential target, according to the HP memo, is Samba, which is software that lets Linux and Unix computers mimic Microsoft Windows' file-sharing and printing behavior. That makes it easier to replace a Windows machine with a Linux computer.

Samba and the Free Software Foundation will be the Software Freedom Law Center's first two clients, the center said.

Samba has an additional level of legal help. OSDL in January hired Samba creator Andrew Tridgell--the second person to attain OSDL fellow status after Linux creator Linus Torvalds. A consortium representative said the same $10 million legal defense fund that will be used to defend Torvalds from legal attack will extend to Tridgell as well.

Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman is working to update the General Public License (GPL) that governs Linux and hundreds of other open-source projects. The law center said it will help with that work.

Overseeing the Software Freedom Law Center will be Moglen; Diane Peters, OSDL's general counsel; Daniel Weitzner, the principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; and Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and author.