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Submission + - SPAM: Intellectual Property and Open Source

stoolpigeon writes: "There is not a single person writing code in the US who is not impacted by the countries intellectual property laws. I think that it is safe to say, that not all of them have a strong understanding of just what those laws are, let alone what they mean. At the same time, there are a number of people, who may or may not be qualified, but are more than willing to share opinions and advice. Some take the time to slap a warning label on such input and IANAL is now widely understood. (I Am Not A Lawyer — Because widely does not mean everyone.) Stepping into this gap is programmer become lawyer Van Lindberg with his new book "Intellectual Property and Open Source." Lindberg has really done something special with this volume. I don't think I've ever read a tech oriented work where I've felt so convinced that I was reading something that would become a standard by which others would come to be judged.

Let me quickly state what this book is not. It is not comprehensive. It does not cover all of US law on intellectual property. What it does cover is mostly viewed from a high level that does not address many finer points. It is not a reference for IP laws outside of the United States. While there is some commonality in various parts of the world, I think the differences preclude this book from being too useful for anyone not impacted by US law.

So what is this book? To me it felt very much like sitting down with a lawyer who can speak my language, understands my concerns, uses open source software, cares about freedom and has a gift for building metaphors and illustrations that make sense. It is that ability to bridge the gap between lawyer and developer and do it in an readable way that makes this such an incredible book. If it were just accurate and thorough but I couldn't get past a couple pages it wouldn't be worth much. If things weren't put into terms that I could grasp and apply to real life situations, the same would be true.

The first seven chapters are a primer on the history and current status of U.S. IP law. Lindberg walks the reader through patents, copyright, trademarks, trade secrets, contracts and licenses. He discusses how these impact inventors and developers. I had considered myself to be casually familiar with most of these, but was surprised how much I learned. I was also a bit scared by the time I was done with it all. Lindberg cites not only the pitfalls that are out there, but backs it up with case history that illustrates his points. More than once I caught myself thinking, "I guess that is possible but it is unlikely." only to be reading a page or two later about how it had already happened and was in some cases still finding its way through the courts. This was all quite a wake-up call for me.

Chapter eight and on deal with how one can operate in the open source world. Lindberg talks about just what Open Source is and then handles the many things that a developer needs to consider from just how to handle a new idea (especially if one is employed) to choosing a license, accepting patches, reverse engineering without being as likely to get sued, and setting up a non-profit to run a project.

I found the discussion on various licenses and just what they mean to be especially helpful. There is a general discussion that covers a wide array of licesnes, and then a separate chapter just for working with the GPL. There is an illustration in that chapter that I think stands as an excellent illustration of what this book is like. "The Darth Vader Scale of Derivative Works", found in chapter twelve, serves to illustrate the Free Software Foundation's position on the applicability of the GPL. Lindberg takes time and care to explain the issue, but the figure showing a range from little "Anny" to the fully cloaked and helmeted Darth Vader shows how he also makes it fun at the same time.

It is not absolutely necessary to read through the book from start to finish but I would highly recommend it. The conversational style makes it easy to do, and there are concepts and metaphors that Lindberg reuses throughout the book that will be easier to understand if the reader has familiarity with their use right from the start. That said, the table of contents, index and topical seperation of chapters will make this useful as a reference. I would just agree with Lindberg that reading it through first will make such use easier in the future.

The book has appendices that contribute over 80 pages to the total length. These include a sample Proprietary Information Agreement, a list of Open Source licenses ( along with some descriptions of how they are used), a Free Software license list, a list of the licenses used with Fedora on a grid that lists GPL compatibility, the full text for a number of licenses and a very nice GPL Compatibility Matrix. That matrix shows what versions of *GPL licenses can be used with one another from the perspective of adding code to an already licensed project or licensing a project that will include code already licensed under one of the *GPL licenses.

Some of the sections are quite sobering. I don't think becoming more educated about these issues is going to encourage most people that things are headed in the right direction. That said, I don't think they will arrive at that conclusion because Lindberg is pushing some opinion. He is very even handed in his approach and it is obvious that he took great pains to focus on one single goal, disseminating accurate and valuable information without letting anything else get in the way. He leaves value judgments to the reader. When there are issues of debate he presents information on both sides, and may express his leaning but does not argue for it or attack other view points.

This book may be frustrating for those who just want copyright and all intellectual property laws to go away. I get the sense that while Lindberg believes that there is a lot of room for improvement, he isn't trying to describe what could or should be, he is just giving advice on how to try and best navigate what is. Right now, the penalties for failing to understand the current environment can be quite harsh, and so I think that such a guide is very important.

I've not ever rated a book a ten before. I don't want to sound like a publicity or marketing piece and I hope in this review I've succesfully argued that I am reasonable in my belief that this is an important book. It is a book very much worth reading, most especially if you create for a living."

A good supervisor can step on your toes without messing up your shine.