A New Defender of the Free Software Commons

One of the most significant achievements of the computer age has been the rise of the free software commons – code that can be openly accessed, shared and modified by anyone. Such code lies at the heart of the Linux operating system and many software programs that run the Internet. The legal durability of such code, in turn, can be traced directly or indirectly to the GNU General Public License, or GPL, an ingenious legal innovation developed by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. The GPL assures that the energies and resources of the commons stay in the commons, and prevents companies from expropriating code and taking it private.

Yesterday, a new beachhead in the defense of the software commons was achieved with the launch of the Software Freedom Law Center. This new organization will provide pro bono advice and legal defense on behalf of the GPL and related free and open source software issues. The project is the brainchild of Columbia University Law Professor Eben Moglen, who is also the long-time general counsel for the Free Software Foundation.

In a press release, Moglen explained why the new group is needed:

As the popularity and use of free and open source software increases and proprietary software development models are threatened, providing necessary legal services to open source developers is becoming increasingly important to prevent liability and other legal issues from interfering with its success. The Law Center is being established to provide legal services to protect the legitimate rights and interests of free and open source software projects and developers, who often do not have the means to secure the legal services they need.

The idea is that the SFLC will be able to advise and defend against legal threats to free software and open source software development, which are increasingly under siege. The most prominent such threat currently comes from a small Utah company, SCO Group, which is suing IBM for allegedly using its proprietary code in a distribution of Linux, the free operating system software. One can imagine many other such lawsuits in the future, particularly from companies like Microsoft or its surrogates.

What’s really interesting about the SFLC is its blue-chip corporate support. The initial funding for the Center – some $4 million – comes from the Open Source Development Labs, a consortium that wants to promote adoption of Linux. Its members include IBM, Intel and Hewlett-Packard. Increasingly, companies who compete in the networked environment of the Internet realize that innovation and competition requires a robust commons; over-propertizing the resources that everyone needs is a recipe for stagnation, and monopoly abuses. The strategic interests of many corporate software developers and nonprofit and individual developers are more aligned than many people might imagine.

Such auspicious news. May the Software Freedom Law Center grow and thrive!