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Legal Rules for the New Open Source Project

Van Lindberg (Haynes and Boone)
Business, Emerging Topics
Location: D138
Average rating: ****.
(4.00, 1 rating)

Developers starting a new project just want to code. They are programmers, not lawyers—they aren’t interested in getting stuck in the legal bog of intellectual property law.

When an open source project makes it big, though, intellectual property issues become very important. Just ask the leaders of Gaim, who had to rename their project “Pidgin” because of trademark concerns . . . or the leaders of Medsphere, who were sued for misappropriation of trade secrets.

There aren’t any legal vaccines that will help open source projects avoid all future legal trouble. There are, however, some easy and simple practices that will help any open source project avoid the massive legal headaches that can come from ignoring intellectual property issues.

This session will present a checklist of ten items that will help any new (or existing) project stay away from legal trouble:

  1. Choose a good name: “Simple Blog” is a bad name for a blog application. “Typepad” is better. Why?
  2. Avoid stepping on other people’s toes: sometimes the perfect name for your application has been taken by someone else. Here’s what to do.
  3. Don’t let others step on your toes: sometimes, you need to make sure your name stays yours. Here’s how.
  4. Decide on a patch acceptance policy: there is much more to accepting a patch than just seeing if it applies cleanly.
  5. Have a developer agreement: this is what you need to get from someone before you give commit access to your code repository.
  6. Mark your code: a little bit of boilerplate can go a long way.
  7. Choose a license, don’t make one up: there are 61 licenses certified by the Open Source Initiative. I will give you five to choose from. Don’t try to make up your own.
  8. Talk to your employer: being open with your employer—in writing—is a good way to avoid trouble.
  9. Be careful of similar proprietary products: sometimes your project looks like or works like a proprietary product. Here is why you need to be careful.
  10. Abide by your license: don’t mix and match licenses.

Van Lindberg

Haynes and Boone

Van Lindberg is a former software engineer (and still a closet techie) who has remade himself as a lawyer. What he does most, though, is translate – from “lawyer” to “engineer” and back. He likes working with both computer code and legal code to get things done.

Van’s current work touches both traditional intellectual property and the emerging field of open source law, where he spends time helping businesses with IP concerns and advising the Python Software Foundation on IP issues. Van is the author of an upcoming O’Reilly book on Intellectual Property for Developers.

OSCON 2008