On Friday, I went to the Legal Summit for Software Freedom that was organized by the Software Freedom Law Center. Most of the event involved lawyers presenting information on a number of different topics including copyrights, clean-room development, non-profit organization and software patents. The Register has an article with more specifics about those presentations.
Most of the content from the presentations will also be available soon as a primer on SFLC’s site. It isn’t that long (45 printed pages) and is worth checking out since the one thing that was mentioned in each presentation was that these legal issues are all easier to deal with if a community takes some steps to address things sooner rather than later. Dealing with legal tasks is probably the last thing a community wants to do though, so they mentioned that the primer needs to become even shorter so that it is less of a burden for people to get the information they need.
The presentations were informative, but I thought the most interesting part of the event was Eben Moglen’s closing talk. I’m not going to try to summarize everything he said, but there was one thing that really stuck with me. Eben mentioned that there was a moral duty for the “last lawyer in town” to take someone on as a client so that person will be able to receive some legal help. This seems to normally apply in cases of unpopular clients or with people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. For the FOSS community, Eben made the point that there aren’t many lawyers available who understand both the law and code, so there is an obligation for those who do to assist the communities that need legal help.
In some sense though there is no one really qualified to deal with issues faced by online communities since lawyers practice on a local level and the communities are global. A lawyer may be certified to practice in New York State and may have gone to school to learn about how law works in the United States, but that person isn’t qualified to say anything about legal issues in other countries that matter to a community. Eben said this was something that SFLC was trying to respond to, so it will be interesting to see what they will be working on next.
Update: It looks like the primer was just released on the SFLC site.