May 11, 2005

Free Software Law Center adds Wine to client list

Author: Jay Lyman

The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), announced today that it is now providing free legal services to the Wine Project, and that this is only the beginning of what SFLC Chairman Eben Moglen described as a legal defense of the entire FOSS (free and open source software) enterprise stack.

"We will have a very strong portfolio of crucial components that make up the FOSS enterprise software stack, including operating system components and crucial application layer products," Moglen said of SFLC's free legal assistance recipients, more of whom will be announced in the next four to six months. These projects will be joining the Free Software Foundation, Samba Project, and now Wine, which already receive SFLC services. Headed by Moglen, the center also boasts the open source legal expertise of well-known attorneys Diane Peters, Lawrence Lessig, and Dan Ravicher.

Making the interoperability case with Wine

Moglen said Wine was a logical client for the center because it represents a pillar of interoperability -- something the SFLC uses in its argument and crusade for free and open source software and open standards.

"Wine is crucial to our interoperability portfolio," he said. "It allows businesses to take their Windows legacy applications with them. The legal usability of Wine is integrated into our interoperability case because of the fact that it incorporates Windows APIs. The Software Freedom Law Center wants to be sure our premier interoperability tools are tools we can use with confidence. This strikes an important step, securing our case that FOSS is fully interoperable."

Moglen said the SFLC will work with Wine Project participants to make sure Wine has "absolutely clear and strong internal structure" for governing software code receipt and implementation -- and documentation to prove where all its code came from.

Moglen -- who said most non-profit FOSS software efforts cannot afford adequate legal advice -- added the Wine Project and other upcoming SFLC clients' software is getting heavy use by businesses that need legal reassurance.

The open source legal expert said components of the SFLC's mission include lawyers competent in dealing with FOSS nonprofits, plus support for smaller projects by companies making money from FOSS -- companies that are encouraged to contribute back to the FOSS community by helping with legal bills.

"We go to companies making enormous profits [from FOSS] and tell them they should put their efforts upstream," he said, adding that with legal support, the companies stand to gain better reassurance in their supply chains, more customer satisfaction, and greater confidence in the nonprofit entities that are now essential to their businesses.

As for FOSS projects, Moglen said the center offers them what they could not previously afford when dealing with the legalities surrounding FOSS projects in enterprise use.

"We're able to offer people a real hard deal to refuse," he said. "And that is world-class legal representation for free."

Reacting to reluctance, legal FUD

Wine Project lead and maintainer Alexandre Julliard said in an email that despite increasing Wine usage, there is still some hesitation on the part of major companies, even those considered FOSS friendly, such as IBM, to use the software or participate in its development. The reason for their apprehension, according to Julliard, is a lack of legal heads in the project and what he described as legal FUD.

"We have noticed more and more lately a reluctance of major companies to work with Wine," Julliard wrote. "The clearest example is IBM. We know that there are a lot of people within IBM using and developing Wine, but IBM doesn't want to be perceived as having anything to do with Wine at all. We can't even get them to acknowledge our existence, and it's clear to us that this is due to their legal department being afraid of Wine. There seems to be an amount of legal FUD around Wine that scares the legal department of companies like IBM, and we want to address that."

Julliard said the first thing the SFLC will do for the Wine Project is talk to the legal departments of major Linux companies, figure out what the concerns are -- copyrights, patents, general fear of Microsoft, or other -- and help the project formulate a plan to address those concerns. As Julliard put it, "To make sure that everybody is comfortable working with Wine without fear of legal trouble."

As for what Wine brings to the center, Julliard said, "I expect we will give them a lot of hopefully interesting work."

Asked what the project had previously done with legal issues of software development and distribution, Julliard said the project did not have explicit structures to deal with them.

"It's mostly common sense principles, like only using publicly available information, not copying code from any project that isn't under a compatible license, and using only safe reverse engineering techniques like running test programs under Windows to investigate the behavior," he said. "Disassembling and/or looking at the Windows code is forbidden, and people who have been doing that are barred from contributing code. I'm checking every single contribution that goes in the code base, and I reject anything that looks remotely suspicious."

"I firmly believe that Wine is on solid legal footing, and now we just need to be able to convince everybody of that," Julliard continued. "I expect that working with the SFLC will bring us the needed expertise and credibility to achieve that goal."

Setting some FOSS precedence

Software legal expert and Townsend and Townsend and Crew partner Phil Albert praised the SFLC as a way for FOSS projects to match the legal policies and procedures that typically go with proprietary software, where companies can afford attorneys.

"I think [the center] is necessary because what open source communities -- and by that I mean developers and users -- are struggling with is how to not so much re-create, but how to have structures in place in software development," Albert said. "The open source community rightly realizes that those functions still need to be done."

While it may be more difficult in the distributed development environments typical of FOSS projects, Albert said legal support for them is a benefit not only to the FOSS community, but also to proprietary vendors, who will become more comfortable with the use of open source tools and components.

Albert, who said his firm has provided free legal services to some FOSS organizations, added that the SFLC is also a sign of the maturity of open source communities.

He said another big SFLC benefit will be increased knowledge of open source legal issues not only for software developers but also for attorneys.

"A lawyer's task is often coming up to speed on new issues," he said. "The Software Freedom Law Center will be an incredibly useful resource because it will have a track record of giving advice on a nonprofit basis."

Category:

  • Legal
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