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Who You Gonna Call? Q&A With Software Freedom Law Center's Eben Moglen

By Jack M. Germain
Jul 23, 2010 5:00 AM PT

The Software Freedom Law Center provides free legal representation and other law-related services to open source software developers. The organization began in 2005 under the direction of Eben Moglen, a professor of law and legal history at Columbia University Law School.

Who You Gonna Call? Q&A With Software Freedom Law Center's Eben Moglen

His law center represents many of the most important and well-established free software and open source projects. The SFLC's goal is to help non-profit FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) projects succeed.

The free legal assistance provides programmers and open source projects with sound legal and organizational structures. The SFLC's goal is to protect the public's right to access, use and develop software, according to Moglen, the founding director.

The SFLC received initial funding of US$4 million from the Open Source Development Labs. LinuxInsider met with Moglen to discuss the situations the SFLC faces in pursuing its legal goals.

LinuxInsider: What led to the formation of the The Software Freedom Law Center?

Eben Moglen: About 15 years ago I started focusing on areas involving free software licensing issues and related use issues. In 2004 I proposed to Stewart Cohen, CEO of OSDL (Open Source Developers Lab) that I lend my legal expertise involving software licensing to their member companies. We would provide a place that would provide legal assistance. I proposed to the companies that we would have problems solved before problems happened. We began this plan on the first of Febrary in 2005.

LIN: How is your office organized?

Moglen: We are an actual nonprofit entity with lawyers on staff. I have six lawyers working in New York City and two lawyers working in India. These people are salaried, working full time on behalf of our clients within the structure of the organization.

LIN: Is your organization's case load strictly pro bono, or is there a fee structure used depending on the case and company involved?

Moglen: We are essentially a pro bono entity. With almost no exceptions, we do not charge the people for whom we provide the services. We do have a small subsidiary which is a commercial law firm of Moglen and Ravicher that performs services to for-profit clients. And 100 percent of that profit is donated back to our non-profit organization. So we have a very small commercial profit, almost insignificant. The majority of our work is paid for by our donars. (Daniel B. Ravicher is the Law Center's legal director.)

LIN: Does an open source software developer contact your organization for assistance directly?

Moglen: We primarily respond to requests for assistance from projects and legal groups who reach out and seek our help. These clients are open source projects or software companies. Sometimes these requests for services involve companies who believe they have been challenged or threatened. Sometimes the requests are from companies that need a lawyer to advise them on how to seek our help in organizing. These companies are already functioning and need a lawyer to advice or counsel them on how to structure their operation.

LIN: What is the best way to contact the Freedom Law Center?

Moglen: A very large number of our clients come to us as a consequence of direct contact using our email address of Sometimes we are referred by one project to another or one company.

LIN: Do you ever initiate legal action on your own?

Moglen: Occasionally we see a situation out in the world where we think people would benefit from our legal advice, and we go to them and offer our assistance. In that case we contact the company and offer our assistance.

LIN: What are some of the current or recent cases that we might recognize for their notoriety?

Moglen: We mostly are not litigants. Our primary task is to help projects do what they want to do in making their software work with greater efficiency and increase the prospects that the software will be used by people around the world. Much of our work involves giving advice to clients. We don't say who those clients are or what advice we give them because of the need for confidentiality.

LIN: Can you offer an example from a recent enforcement effort?

Moglen: Sometimes our clients need us to help them enforce their licenses. And sometimes the process of enforcing licenses requires lawsuits. One client of ours is BusyBox, which is a small suite of code that creates a positive environment on top of an operating system kernel which is very useful when embedded inside the stack or inside appliance devices.

The BusyBox project asked us to provide license enforcement for them. Their license is the GPL, so we do attempt to contact companies around the world that manufacture devices using BusyBox to honor the GPL. Sometimes companies are unresponsive to our inquiries. They don't answer our letters or phone calls. And only under those circumstances we sometimes sue people.

LIN: Can you gives us some of the particulars involving the GPL license case?

Moglen: Back in December we sued Samsung, Panasonic, Best Buy and a number of other manufactures and distributors of electronics because those manufacturers were embedding BusyBox and not obeying the GPL. Most of that involved televisions. Most cases were consolidated and presented in the U.S. District Court for the southern district of New York and are working their way through pretrial motions. I expect all of those cases to settle on various standards over the next few months.

LIN: Is there a type of recurring legal issue that you see with open source developers that drives a continuing set of cases to your doorstep?

Moglen: Most of the issues involve working with unorganized projects where programmers come together. We help them set up non-profit organizations that have limited liabilities. That's not a recurring problem. But it is a situation that many projects face. I wouldn't call these things recurring issues. They are matters that companies need help in setting up.

LIN: Where do you see your organization headed? Will you continue the pro bono service, or is there a role for you in lobbying within the software industry?

Moglen; No, we are not a lobbyist organization. I'm organized as a law firm. There are limitations against lobbying. We do not get involved in legislation or candidates for office. But we do contact governments and government agencies in the United States and around the world on behalf of our clients on the idea of free and open software. But we do not primarily support lobbying.

I do suspect that over the next five years we will primarily remain as we are now, a law firm and a non-profit legal services entity. I aim to provide the best possible legal services through the broadest possible range of clients. I expect us to continue operating in the United States and in India. I also do expect us to expand our operation into other parts of the world.

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