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

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

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

The free legal assistance provides programmers and open sourceprojects with sound legal and organizational structures. The SFLC’sgoal is to protect the public’s right to access, use and developsoftware, according to Moglen, the founding director.

The SFLC received initial funding of US$4 million from the OpenSource Development Labs. LinuxInsider met with Moglen to discuss thesituations 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 involvingfree software licensing issues and related use issues. In 2004 Iproposed to Stewart Cohen, CEO of OSDL (Open Source Developers Lab)that I lend my legal expertise involving software licensing to theirmember companies. We would provide a place that would provide legalassistance. I proposed to the companies that we would have problemssolved before problems happened. We began this plan on the first ofFebrary in 2005.

LIN: How is your office organized?


We are an actual nonprofit entity with lawyers on staff. Ihave six lawyers working in New York City and two lawyers working inIndia. These people are salaried, working full time on behalf of ourclients within the structure of the organization.

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


We are essentially a pro bono entity. With almost noexceptions, we do not charge the people for whom we provide theservices. We do have a small subsidiary which is a commercial law firmof Moglen and Ravicher that performs services to for-profit clients.And 100 percent of that profit is donated back to our non-profitorganization. So we have a very small commercial profit, almostinsignificant. 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 organizationfor assistance directly?


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

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


A very large number of our clients come to us as aconsequence of direct contact using our email address ofhelp@softwarefreedom.org. Sometimes we are referred by one project toanother or one company.

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


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

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


We mostly are not litigants. Our primary task is to helpprojects do what they want to do in making their software work withgreater efficiency and increase the prospects that the software willbe used by people around the world. Much of our work involves givingadvice to clients. We don’t say who those clients are or what advicewe give them because of the need for confidentiality.

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


Sometimes our clients need us to help them enforce theirlicenses. And sometimes the process of enforcing licenses requireslawsuits. One client of ours is BusyBox, which is a small suite ofcode that creates a positive environment on top of an operating systemkernel which is very useful when embedded inside the stack or insideappliance devices.

The BusyBox project asked us to provide license enforcement for them.Their license is the GPL, so we do attempt to contact companies aroundthe world that manufacture devices using BusyBox to honor the GPL.Sometimes companies are unresponsive to our inquiries. They don’tanswer our letters or phone calls. And only under those circumstanceswe sometimes sue people.

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


Back in December we sued Samsung, Panasonic, Best Buy and anumber of other manufactures and distributors of electronics becausethose manufacturers were embedding BusyBox and not obeying the GPL.Most of that involved televisions. Most cases were consolidated andpresented in the U.S. District Court for the southern district of NewYork and are working their way through pretrial motions. I expect allof those cases to settle on various standards over the next fewmonths.

LIN: Is there a type of recurring legal issue that you see with opensource developers that drives a continuing set of cases to yourdoorstep?


Most of the issues involve working with unorganized projectswhere programmers come together. We help them set up non-profitorganizations that have limited liabilities. That’s not a recurringproblem. But it is a situation that many projects face. I wouldn’tcall these things recurring issues. They are matters that companiesneed help in setting up.

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


No, we are not a lobbyist organization. I’m organized as a lawfirm. There are limitations against lobbying. We do not get involvedin legislation or candidates for office. But we do contact governmentsand government agencies in the United States and around the world onbehalf of our clients on the idea of free and open software. But we donot primarily support lobbying.

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

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