Could SCO vs IBM happen to you?

Jim O'Halloran • January 15, 2004

linux-and-open-source linuxconfau-2004

Next up was "Could SCO vs IBM happen to you?" presented by Jeremy Malcolm from iLaw. After starting out with a general overview of the SCO vs IBM case, Jeremy then covered the current state of copyright law.

Copyrights protect the expression of ideas only. The same idea can be restated in different language without violating copyrights. Trade Secrets aren't actually defined in statutes, but a body of case law has evolved surrounding the idea of trade secrets whigh protect confidential information.

Patents protect inventive ideas, and are only valid in the country in which they were issued. It is possible to violate a patent even if you wrote the code yourself from your own ideas, without copying and didn't know the patent exists.

Both Patents and Trade Secrets take precedence over copyright law.

If you're working on both closed and open source products you need to take steps to protect yourself. Use separate development teams and keep them separated to try and limit the cross flow of code and ideas.

If you're a project leader you might want to think about protecting your project by ensuring that each developer makes a declaration of cleanliness of their code. You might want to ensure that the developers indemnify the other project members if their code is found to be in violation of patents or copyright. However you'll also need to balance that with the possibility that you'll scare away possible developers with these legalities.

You can also protect yourself by choosing a licence which explicitly deals with patents. For example the Mozilla Public Licence requires contributors to grant free patent licences to all developers and users of the project.

As a project leader you should read up on patents in your area, although the sheer volume and vague wording of some patents can make this difficult to do properly. If you have money you can always hire an attorney to do this for you and sue if they screw it up, but that's expensive.

Finally, you can avoid some licensing issues by building from scratch rather than plugging into an existing project. The more independent the better.