Linuxworld: Next stop for Linux, the courts?

As open-source software continues to make its way into business computing, most of the legal waters surrounding it remain...

As open-source software continues to make its way into business computing, most of the legal waters surrounding it remain uncharted. But that is likely to change in the next few years as cases involving open-source licensing issues begin showing up in the courts.

At the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, Daniel Ravicher, a New York registered patent attorney, said, "These issues may start to loom larger and larger."

Ravicher presented his comments as part of an overview on where open-source software fits today in the legal landscape of software and intellectual property law.

What will fuel those legal fights will be disagreements over whether open-source software and licensing is protected under existing copyright and trademark laws, Ravicher said. While proprietary software is protected by copyrights and trademarks issued to the companies that produce and license it, open-source software operates under different kinds of licences.

The main open-source licences include the GNU General Public Licence, which allows developers to add their code to open-source applications as long as they publish their source code freely and include a copyright notice.

The Mozilla Public Licence and the IBM Public Licence allow developers to make changes or add new code - again as long as they publish their source code. And the Berkeley Software Design licence and MIT licence allow developers to make whatever changes they desire, but preclude lawsuits based on the software.

Ravicher predicted that legal challenges would become more commonplace as open-source deployments pushed into areas dominated by proprietary software makers. If open-source use in business approaches 30% to 50% of the software market, that would be when the rest of the industry would look to potential legal challenges.

So far, no major cases have tested open-source licensing in court to determine whether they are enforceable. But as open-source software continues to be deployed and developed, it is, in some ways, making its own eventual legal defence with its popularity and place in the market, Ravicher said.

LinuxWorld finishes tomorrow (Thursday).

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