Thursday, November 08, 2007

A funding appeal from the SFLC

I know, I know, a big gap in blogging again. Let me try and get things started again by forwarding Eben Moglen's appeal for funding for the Software Freedom Law Center. (As its Eben, the appeal is eloquent):

Dear Friend,

I am writing to you to ask that you consider a donation to the Software Freedom Law Center this year as you make your year-end giving plans. Now completing its third year of life, SFLC has produced a body of distinguished legal work in the public interest. Our ability to continue this work relies on your support.

When my colleagues and I formed SFLC in 2005, with the generous support of the Open Source Development Lab and its member companies, our intention was to build a legal services organization for a unique community: the far-flung collection of programmers and projects that constitute the non-profit Free Software and Open Source landscape. Our philosophy of practice is that early legal assistance offered to projects when they are young prevents problems, reduces friction, and benefits everyone. We are primarily counselors and advisers, rather than litigators; we believe in being, where appropriate, "lawyers for the situation," in Louis Brandeis' classic phrase, rather than partisans.

Our clients are talented and generous people who put their technical virtuosity and hard work into making wonderful software everyone can freely copy, modify, and share. Our practice on their behalf conforms to their values: we try to create agreement and eliminate artificial barriers to innovation and access to technology. Our goal is to eliminate risks today, rather than to sue over them tomorrow.

In these last three years we are proud to have built a client list that includes the Apache Software Foundation, the GNOME Foundation, the Free Software Foundation, the Sakai Foundation, the Software Freedom Conservancy and to name just a few. Some high-profile activities, like our involvement in the making of GPLv3, have received more than their share of attention. But it's the less visible aspects of our practice that have, in my opinion, created the most value for our clients and the surrounding community. For example, we have helped projects to restructure and reorganize themselves to ensure sound corporate form and governance, limiting liability that could have jeopardized the very projects that those structures were establish to protect.

Reproduced below is our information sheet that lists some of the work we can talk about. We've been active invalidating patents, reviewing code bases sullied by accusations of infringement, providing licensing assistance, pursuing enforcement, developing copyright and trademark policies with our clients and publishing educational materials that we hope will benefit the whole community.

I've been practicing legal education as well as law for twenty years, and from my perspective, SFLC is as important for its role in training lawyers specialized in these issues as it is for the client service it provides. SFLC is able to recruit, employ, and train lawyers who will carry on the representation of FOSS programmers not only in the US, but around the world. We are preparing to open our first affiliated practice, in New Delhi, India, where we plan to participate from the ground up in the development of the Indian free software development community.

Of course, as every fundraising letter must sooner or later surrender to cliche and disclose, "all this costs money." Vendor support is still the mainstay of our funding; we're very grateful for the generous support of the companies who provide funds to ensure that hackers have counsel.

But if the vendors are our only contributors, we put at risk our definition as a public charity, and rightly so. We don't want to be lawyers offering services to hackers on behalf of a community of corporations: We want to be lawyers working for, coming from, and supported by the community as a whole.

Free software law from the beginning--or at least as far back as my experience extends--was always about reducing friction by increasing the peace. The cardinal idea that we all do better by sharing, which has gone hand in hand with transparency and peaceful methods of dispute resolution, has created both economic and social value beyond all but the most wildly optimistic expectations. Please help me, and the outstanding colleagues who practice with me at SFLC, to continue doing what we can to represent, cherish, and foster this way of making software.

Software freedom is good for almost everyone, and it needs to be protected. This year, please give generously.

Thank you,

Eben Moglen
President and Executive Director
Software Freedom Law Center

November 2007
About Us

The Software Freedom Law Center provides legal representation and other law-related services to protect and advance Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Founded in 2005, we now represent many of the most important and well-established free software and open source projects. As an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, we are able to offer our services for free to the developers we represent.
What We've Been Doing

The Software Freedom Law Center has made significant strides in accomplishing our mission to protect and advance Free and Open Source Software. Since our founding, we have:

* Built from scratch the technological infrastructure required to run a law firm using entirely Free and Open Source Software. This includes a VoIP system that allows for sophisticated telephone call routing and conference calling at a fraction of the traditional costs of such services, as well as a time tracking system that allows SFLC staff to record and report time spent on SFLC activities.
* Provided legal and organizational support to our client's process of updating the GNU General Public License to version 3 (GPLv3). SFLC created a web-based public document commenting system which facilitates public discussion of documents. SFLC helped draft the new license and mediated the GPLv3 discussion committees.
* Successfully defended against a lawsuit filed in the Southern District of Indiana alleging that the GPL is an anticompetitive restraint of trade.
* Published white papers to share our legal expertise with the broader FOSS community. These papers have considered: using GPL licensed software in light of Sarbanes-Oxley; alleged patent issues with implementing the OpenDocument format; U.S. rules governing Software Defined Radios; standards for copyrightability; and guidelines for maintaining permissive-licensed code in a GPL project.
* Launched the Software Freedom Conservancy, an organization that acts as a fiscal sponsor to FOSS projects and provides them with financial and administrative services. Member projects now include ArgoUML, Boost, BusyBox, Inkscape, Libbraille, Mercurial, OpenChange, SurveyOS, Samba, uCLibc and Wine.
* Co-hosted a conference on software patents held at Boston University and MIT. Held our first annual legal summit and included an afternoon of educational presentations to the public.
* Filed a formal request with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, asking them to re-examine Blackboard's patent on e-learning systems. The Patent Office accepted the request and ordered re-examination of the patent.
* Audited OpenHAL's code base and determined that there was no illegal copying from Atheros' proprietary HAL code. We also analyzed its ISC license compatibility. OpenHAL is low-level interface software for Atheros-based wireless cards, which is used in both Linux and OpenBSD systems.
* Filed the first-ever U.S. GPL infringement lawsuit on behalf of developers of BusyBox against Monsoon Multimedia. The case has settled and the defendant has promised to comply with the GPL.

Inside SFLC: Review of Linux Wireless Code Completed

Last month, SFLC announced that it had carefully reviewed the lineage of the open source Atheros wireless driver for Linux and determined which portions can be distributed under the ISC license (also known as the 2-clause BSD license).

The licensing situation for the Atheros driver is complex because much of it was originally derived from an OpenBSD project called ar5k. This original code is licensed under the ISC license, but Linux code is typically licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). The GPL places specific additional requirements on distributors of software to ensure that its users are able to obtain the software's source code, and freely to copy, modify, and redistribute all subsequent modified versions.

Ultimately, all the copyright holders of the Linux ath5k-driver code, derived from ar5k, were contacted and agreed to license their changes under the ISC license, thus allowing improvements to be re-incorporated into OpenBSD. One of the three historical branches of the code reviewed by SFLC, however, included portions that are only licensed under the GPL, and SFLC has determined that it would be very difficult to re-incorporate that code into OpenBSD.

To share its knowledge with the FOSS and legal communities and to share background regarding its analysis, SFLC also released two documents of general interest. One document is a set of guidelines for developers who wish to incorporate code with a permissive license, such as ISC, into a GPL-licensed project. The other paper discusses the legal standards of originality with regard to computer programs under U.S. and international copyright law.

This is not the first time that SFLC has worked with the Linux Wireless developers. In July, SFLC announced that it had performed a confidential audit of the open source Atheros driver and determined that no portion of it was illegally copied from Atheros' proprietary code.
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