I took a trip this last week, one that involved several hours of airplane travel each way. I took along a book that I just picked up that looked interesting. If you are like me, you have heard about and read through some of the philosophical foundations of software licensing, copyright law, and intellectual property, but sometimes it all seems so complicated that you aren’t really sure how it all fits together. Patents, copyright, trademarks and trade secrets, licenses and contracts all seem to overlap at times making a sort of intellectual property law soup that can be hard to digest. That is precisely why I picked up Van Lindberg’s Intellectual Property and Open Source: A Practical Guide to Protecting Code.
Now, I have read books by Lawrence Lessig and the writings of people like Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond. I am on board with the idea of making information, including program code, as free and accessible as possible. What has not been clear to me is the legal aspects. When is it possible to use GPL licensed code in a project? Which licenses have the greatest affect on the freedom of the code and in which ways? How is this different from software patents and why do these patents even exist? This is the tip of the IP iceberg.
This book was written by someone who works as a liaison between engineers and lawyers, translating for each side to the other. If this book is any indication, I bet he is quite good at his job. The information he presents is incredibly clear. While it is not intended as a substitute for legal advice from a lawyer who understands the specifics of the law in your locale, it is intended to give you an understanding of what the issues are, the definitions of and affects of patents, copyright, trademarks and trade secrets, and more, and I walked away after reading it feeling like I have a base understanding of the issues that is a lot deeper and clearer than I had before.
The book begins by giving a bit of history regarding the economic and legal foundations of intellectual property law. It continues from here into very specific discussions of each part, including the history and arguments leading up to why we have the laws we have today. Once the foundation is understood, it becomes more obvious how we arrived at our current (and rather messy) state of affairs.
The last third to half of the book focuses directly on open source software licensing. The book includes a discussion of the similarities and differences in perspective between the Open Source and the Free Software movements, the specifics of each of the main software licenses in use today and how they have and have not been tested in the legal system, gives advice for programmers and intellectual property creators who are also employees of a company to help them interact in good faith with their employers in the hope of preventing problems, and even such interesting legal areas as reverse engineering.
The book does not focus on the philosophy behind why someone would want to us a free or open license for their work. If that is what you are looking for, look elsewhere. However, if the specific legal issues interest you, but you don’t understand legalese, I don’t think I have seen a better text. I think it would be appreciated by a lawyer, a programmer, a project supervisor, or anyone who just wants to try to make sense of the topic.