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Mike Riley

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Intellectual Property and Open Source Book Review

September 04, 2008

I had the pleasure of interviewing software engineer turned practicing attorney Van Lindberg at this year's PyCon 2008 in Chicago, where he also presented a keynote on the subject of intellectual property (IP) and its relationship to software development.  The topics he covered in those talks as well as an in-depth examination of how IP, the law and open source can beneficially co-exist are nicely covered in Intellectual Property and Open Source, Van's new O'Reilly-published book.
As a result of Van's dual-career background, he makes for the ideal subject matter expert and is a proponent of both intellectual property upholding the law as well as the remarkable advantages of the open source project ethos.  He fairly evaluates and presents both sides of this sometimes contentious and often confusing relationship between the rights and value of property holders and the eager, idealistic enthusiasts who espouse that software must be free.

Van educates the reader with the definition and relevant examples of patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets.  Like software, law is code, although as the author helps its software developer readership relate, think of the US legal system akin to a massive legacy system with copious re-writes, patches and occasional forks.  Fortunately, Van helps navigate these multi-dependency, multi-referenced laws with a great deal of skill and evident experience.

Once the first seven chapters of the book dispense with the legal definitions of the most likely legal issues open source developers will have to recognize, the book hits its stride with Chapter 8, "The Economic and Legal Foundations of Open Source Software" and Chapter 9, "So I Have an Idea..." where a good portion of legal questions frequently seen on open source newsgroups and forums are addressed.  Chapter 10 on "Choosing A License" is also a popular topic among open source advocates and one that the author supplies invaluable, organized descriptions, features, strengths and weaknesses of the most prevalent open source licenses being applied today.

The book concludes with a chapter on the liabilities associated with accepting patches and contributions (summary - make sure any agreement is signed before doing so!), an entire chapter dedicated to describing the GPL followed by a chapter on the legal issues around the act of reverse engineering (complete with several memorable, relatively recent court case examples) and finally on the encouraging though still carefully cognizant subject of incorporating as a non-profit business entity.  Fourteen appendixes grace the remainder of the book, ranging from the extensive and educationally revealing "Fedora License List and GPL Compatibility" to printed versions of the Apache, Mozilla Public and various versions of the GNU Lesser and GNU General Public Licenses.  Seeing these legally binding agreements in print make them more real and legitimate compared to quickly paging past them in a source code header or LICENSE.TXT file.

This is not a step-by-step "follow this procedure and you will attain legal-free happiness" formula book but rather a reference that touches upon the most important legal considerations surrounding open source software development.  I highly recommend this book to anyone either currently or considering releasing their code under an open source license.  Kudos to the author for distilling a vast sea of legal code into a book that software coders can grok.

Title:  Intellectual Property and Open Source
Author: Van Lindberg
Price: US $34.99

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