Legal Issues Primer for FOSS

Those among you who read EULA’s when installing software, raise you hands (yes, I can see you when you do this). Now those of you only make it through ‘EU’ before clicking Next to get on with things, hands up.

This post is for both groups. But it’s especially for the Next-ers.

The Software Freedom Law Center has a great paper called A Legal Issues Primer for Open Source and Free Software Projects (also available as a PDF). If you are a software user, this is a great read and gives you a better understanding of why software licenses are so important. If you are a software developer, particularly if you are a developer working in the FOSS world, I would label this a must read.

From the publication:

Our intended audience for this Primer is any person interested in a basic understanding of the legal issues that impact FOSS development and distribution. In particular, this Primer, like most of our other public work at SFLC, is addressed to two constituencies. First, we provide creative, productive hackers insight on how to interact with the legal system—insofar as it affects the projects they work on—with a minimum of cost, fuss and risk. Second, we present a starting point for lawyers and risk managers for thinking about the particular, at times counter-intuitive, logic of software freedom.

The document itself contains no headache-inducing legalese and is very approachable and readable. It goes over the idea of copyleft, different FOSS licenses, organizational structure, and patents and trademarks, all in a very easy to understand way. It’s the best document I’ve read of its kind. While it’s targeted at FOSS, it has a lot of information users and developers of proprietary software can use as well.

Why did I say this is mostly targets to the Next-ers? Your software license agreement is important. Very important. You are basically signing a legal contract, like a car or house loan, that governs your rights and responsibilities as a user of the software. Whether your software was free or cost 6 figures, you need to know what you are agreeing to. Have you ever installed some software, only to find annoying advertising popping up everywhere? Did your operating system stop working and make a defacto accusation of software piracy because you decided to put in a new video card? Is your firewall constantly alerting you to software trying to phone home with information from your computer? Did you buy a proprietary GIS data set, only to later find out you can’t use it on the web the way you wanted to? The odds are you agreed to these things in a EULA somewhere along the way.

I was a Next-er for a long time. I can relate to what a pain reading a EULA can be. Do it anyway. If speeding through license agreements hasn’t bitten you yet, it will eventually. And I guarantee once you start looking over your license agreements more closely, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the rights granted to you with FOSS.

Note: If you still have your hand up, you can put it down now.