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Group forms open-source legal defense center

BURLINGAME, CA--You know open source has really arrived when they start bringing in the lawyers. The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) announced last week the formation of an organization that will provide free legal services for developers of free and open-source software (FOSS). The Software Freedom Law Center was established to offer advice on licensing, to show developers how to avoid intellectual property (IP) claims, and to defend against litigation when such claims arise.

Headquartered in New York City, the Law Center is backed by a $4 million grant from the OSDL. The center's founder is Eben Moglen, a professor of law at Columbia University, who is set to run the operation with two full-time attorneys, a chief technology officer, and administrative personnel.

"This is about taking care of the goose that laid the golden egg and not letting wolves come in the middle of the night and steal it away," Moglen said during a press conference. "This is a legal firm not involved so much in litigating and defending as it will be for counseling and advising and nurturing non-profits and to prevent millions of dollars in litigation."

An international expert on software copyright law, Moglen has long served as General Counselor for the Free Software Foundation (also known as GNU.org).

The nonprofit center will not represent commercial Linux vendors, Moglen said. He added that he wants to raise another $5 million to fund the center over the next five years. He expects the staff to grow eventually to about 15 attorneys.

The legal status of open-source software has been in the spotlight ever since The SCO Group launched a much publicized, multibillion-dollar lawsuit against IBM in 2003 for illegally contributing its proprietary Unix code to Linux. At one point, the Utah-based company threatened to sue other Linux users in connection with these claims.

The OSDL had previously set up a $10 million legal defense fund for Linux creator Linus Torvalds and companies facing SCO-related costs.

Moglen said that he has already begun work on a major revision of version 3 of the General Public License. He said that the law center would remain independent and "license neutral."

Beaverton, OR-based Open Source Development Labs is a global consortium focused on accelerating the adoption of Linux in the enterprise.

"OSDL is committed to supporting initiatives such as the Law Center to help protect the legitimate development and use of Linux and open-source software," Stuart Cohen, CEO of OSDL, said in a statement. "We encourage other companies and organizations like OSDL who are dedicated to securing the future of open-source software to contribute to the Law Center and participate in its good works."

For more information about The Software Freedom Law Center, visit: www.softwarefreedom.org.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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