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An Effort to Help Free-Software Developers Avoid Suits

By STEVE LOHR (NYT) 546 words
Published: February 1, 2005

Freely distributed open-source software like the Linux operating system has become increasingly popular, but one cloud over its future has been legal risk. So far, most of the lawsuits have involved claims that software code owned by someone else found its way into a cooperative programming project.

A nonprofit legal center opening today, backed by $4 million in initial financing from a corporate consortium, will provide advice from specialists that is intended to minimize the risk that developers and users of free software will be sued.

The Software Freedom Law Center, its founders say, will focus on helping the leaders of open-source software projects organize and manage their work in ways that anticipate and avoid potential legal pitfalls.

A suit against I.B.M., seeking $1 billion, is largely responsible for the legal worries surrounding open-source software. The SCO Group, a small Utah company, has accused I.B.M. of contributing code to Linux that SCO legally controlled. I.B.M. has denied the accusations.

''The SCO suit shows the need to really focus early on how open-source projects are structured and managed,'' said Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University and a specialist in copyright law and software, who will be chairman of the new center. ''That case is mostly a dispute about how software is put together.

''We want to provide open-source projects with the groundwork so they know their projects are legally sound and put together with confidence,'' Mr. Moglen added.

The center, based in New York, will offer free advice to nonprofit open-source software projects and developers. Private companies use open-source software and their programmers contribute code, but nonprofit groups typically organize projects like Linux, Apache and Debian.

The initial funding for the center comes from the Open Source Development Labs, a consortium that seeks to accelerate the adoption of Linux. Its members include I.B.M., Intel and Hewlett-Packard. Linus Torvalds, who wrote the core of the Linux operating system, is employed by the group.

Last year, the group coordinated a $10 million defense fund to provide support for Mr. Torvalds and any users of Linux that might be sued by SCO.

The corporate champions of Linux say that legal support is needed for the further growth of Linux and the open-source software that will run on it. ''This is one more step in the maturing process of open source,'' said Stuart Cohen, chief executive of the Open Source Development Labs.

The legal center's board consists of a group of lawyers who are specialists on intellectual property and open-source software. Besides Mr. Moglen, it includes Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University; Diane Peters, general counsel of the open source labs; and Daniel Weitzner, a lawyer and researcher at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

''Open-source software has been really important to the development of the Internet and the Web as a global communications and information medium,'' Mr. Weitzner said. ''The idea of the center is to provide legal and strategic resources to help open source continue to grow.''