Thursday, September 13, 2007

Great blog on the Legal mechanisms in place to protect Linux

Andy Updegrove posted a good blog with the reasons behind the upcoming Linux Foundation sponsered legal summits. I highly recommend reading it. It demonstrates one of many methods in progress designed to better develop the legal ecosystem around Linux and to clarify the general legal status of Linux and Open Source. I happen to work at IBM and as many know, IBM seems to hire more lawyers than just about anyone else. And, it tends to hire some very skilled people into those roles. I think many of these lawyers have been in the vanguard of understanding the implications of various open source licenses and their potential impacts on IBM business. Yet, I occasionally encounter lawyers who haven't had the pleasure of working with open source and are at least initially confounded by the differences in the various licenses which surround open source code.

And, having seen how these new laywers come to terms with those issues, often with input from seasoned lawyers, experienced technical and managerial folks, I occasionally wonder how a laywer without that support network would come up to speed on this complex new world that open source provides. From what I've seen thus far, new doctors of jurisprudence rarely get in depth training in school about a ground breaking license like the GPL. And, with the variety of opinions and interpretions often held by all of the arm chair lawyers that the GPL has created, as well as the political and business pressures around open source, I'm not surprised when laywers take the "safe" route of simply recommending "no" when open source comes up.

However, for those businesses that take that simple "no" response and choose to stay out of the open source world, I believe that in many cases they will artificially limit the success of their business operations. Picture, for instance, a world where IBM in 1999 said "no" to Linux, because we were unable to understand the impacts of this upstart GPL license. Sure, someone else would have sooner or later endorsed Linux, in part because the allure to business is so strong, but also because an open minded lawyer actually can come to terms with the GPL. And, to be honest, the legal environment really isn't any more complex than the normal legal wranglings that any large company goes through - it is just that the rules are a bit different, and that in the end, all of the sources released are visible to anyone that cares to look. The extra scrutiny scares laywers (and sometimes developers who are worried about code quality ;-) but in the end, that extra scrutiny also helps ensure that everyone stays within the terms of the respective licenses.

The Linux Foundation's Legal Summits will hopefully blow away some of that fear, uncertainty and doubt, that smokey haze of confusion surrounding open source for those that are less experienced, and allow the legal teams of companies using open source to make informed decisions. Beyond that, it will help companies set up appropriate isolation to prevent cross contamination of source bases when using incompatible licenses (most companies do this today even for non-Open Source licenses) and to understand their rights and obligations when using open source as consumers.

All in all, I see these Legal Summits as a great value add to the Linux ecosystem!

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