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Tuesday, 17 January 2012

IFOSS, therefore I am: a book review

The International Free and Open Source Software Law Book was briefly noted by the IPKat here at the end of last year.  It is now reviewed in full by Marcus O’Leary (Consultant, Lewis Silkin and, it seems to this Kat, a longstanding IP/IT enthusiast). Writes Marcus:
"This law book, with the laudable aim of providing a neutral and lasting reference in relation to how Free and Open Source Software ("FOSS") licences are treated in various countries around the world, is written in the spirit of collaboration and contribution by (so far) a number of authors all of whom know their subject extremely well. That is a commendation in itself. 
The book has two forms, an "evolving" form based at www.ifosslawbook.org and a "yearly complete" form that is to be physically published through the Open Source Press, Germany.

At present, the book is obtainable only in its "evolving form", where the first “introductory” chapter for each of the thirteen countries featured has been completed in draft form by the primary author/editor for that country. We are told that chapter authors have been (and will be) carefully selected to ensure a high quality of initial contribution. It is intended that further countries and chapters be added in time.

The book, as a whole, is governed by a handful of parties who have stewarded the initial release but their intention is to develop a formal governance structure over time.

This first chapter deals with the general legal background under which FOSS licences operate in each country and makes fascinating reading. It also includes FOSS cases (if any) which have been decided in each jurisdiction and the remedies which may (or may not) be available to a party whose rights have been infringed. Also contained are "tasters" of some of the more difficult issues that arise in relation to the operation of FOSS licences: a forerunner of delights to come.

The idea is that members of the broader network review, comment and improve the chapter texts as an open reference intended to benefit all. Not only that but third party legal or technical experts (either in FOSS or in other fields) are also invited to provide feedback on the various chapters and also on the book itself, via the main website.

The book is positioned as a first resource for legal experts, faced with a legal question under a jurisdiction other than their own, to gain an understanding of how FOSS licences are treated in that jurisdiction. They can then go on, if need be, to seek further information or local legal advice.

The meat of the book is yet to come. That will lie in the country by country analysis of how specific FOSS licences operate in the various jurisdictions covered. This should provide an invaluable reference to FOSS experts around the world and also as a primer for legal experts with a traditional proprietary licence perspective - although it would be unwise for the latter to "dabble" too deeply as it takes some years to become familiar with the FOSS landscape.

Apart from, in some countries, a more rigorous approach to proof reading, there is not much to improve in this publication and, after all, there is a mechanism for doing so built it.

All I would really like to see at this early stage is a rather tighter country format, so that there is closer correlation of sections and section headings, country by country. I realise that it won’t always be possible to do this and that a certain amount of flexibility has to be maintained but it would make cross-reference much easier. For example, the US section (which is particularly well-written and almost "bug" free) has a large section on the patent protection of software. In using this book, I would expect a US lawyer, in order to see how FOSS may be treated under another jurisdiction, to search for a similarly-named section in that jurisdiction. At the moment he would be hard-pressed to find one.

Also, perhaps matters such as the "copyleft principle" (as opposed to its validity in a particular country) could be explained in a separate and overarching "Glossary" section rather than appearing in each country chapter. Personally, I would also like a date at the end of each chapter and an easier method for downloading all of the chapters (I clipped into Evernote.)

But these are quite small things in the context of the work as a whole and quite easily remediable just by using the mechanisms provided for doing so. In my opinion, this book is a very important addition to the literature on FOSS and its licences around the world and I recommend it wholeheartedly".

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