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Intellectual Property and Open Source - Five Lessons Learned
by Shannon Yelland

Shannon Yelland, January 28, 2010

copyrightThe following is a guest post from Romuald Restout VP, Product Development at Arbita and President and Chairperson of the Board of HR-XML

I started getting interested in Intellectual Property with my role as President and Chairperson of the Board of HR-XML, a non-profit organization dedicated to building standards for the exchange of data between Human Resources applications.

We were just releasing the third major release of our standards, and we needed to review the licensing terms. So, I needed to get familiar with all the legal concepts (patents, copyrights, trademarks, …) and how to use them in order to provide protection for our standards, but also protection for the organizations who wanted to use our standards in their applications.

During this discovery journey, I realized how much intellectual property was also important in my “day job” as VP Product Development for Arbita, a recruitment marketing platform provider. This was an aspect that I overlooked until now. I was more focused on how to get the right requirements, the right processes and methodologies, how to get more development done faster and with better quality, but with little attention to the IP consequences of using such or such tool, module or library. Of course, in the back of my mind, I knew there were such things as GPL, copyrights, and licenses, but I didn’t know how to use them or how they applied to my work.

Naturally, there is a lot of information out there, on the Internet. But without a legal background, it is difficult to wrap your head around all these concepts.

Luckily, I have been able to find one book to explain them all

One Book to rule them all,
One Book to find them,
One Book to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them

Well, it is way less dangerous than the One Ring. And much more useful if you need to slalom through the complex paths of property laws.

Intellectual Property and Open Source

The book “Intellectual Property and Open Source, A Practical Guide to Protecting Code” by Van Lindberg, starts by explaining all the legal concepts that apply to software intellectual property and then focus on the open source aspects, including a review of all common open-source licenses.

I won’t even try summarizing everything here. To start, there is too much to summarize. Then, details matter; so summarizing would not be very helpful. Finally, there is an excellent book review by Matt Asay here.

Rather I will go with…

My Top Five Lessons Learned

Intellectual Property Matter

When distributing software, the IP aspects can have a dramatic impact on your product, your organization, and the community that is using your product. As a consequence:

Lesson 1) It is important that you understand the basics of Intellectual Property.

Lesson 2) It is important that you have a clear IP picture of all the libraries, modules, middleware or applications that you’re using in your own products. For each of them you need to know what licensing applies; and its consequences on your product that range from using unauthorized material (easily fixed) to having to distribute your software for free (too bad if your product is your business)

The Devil is in the Details

To start with there are various aspects to intellectual property: patents, copyrights, licenses, contracts, trade secrets, derivative works, …. Getting a clear understanding of all these concepts can be tricky at times (and Lindberg's book does a wonderful job at explaining those).

Then, there are all the nuances and fine prints in these concepts. And it’s a quick step to go from nuance to gray area. There are plenty of them.

Lesson 3) Don’t stop at the big picture. Avoid quick reading. Reading all these license agreements is boring and uninteresting, no question about it, but there are hidden traps (and sometimes hidden gems) among all this text.

Lesson 4) Don’t fool yourself. You’re not a lawyer (and probably don’t want to be). When you’re not sure, call one.

Strategy Rule

When designing your own licenses, copyrights, and trademarks, it is important to know what you want to do. (Well, this is true for most things in life)

Many people will just pick an existing license (Apache, GP, LGPL, …) and use it exactly as is. “Let’s take the Mozilla license. See how successful Firefox is”. The reason why the Firefox license works so well is that it is perfectly adjusted to Mozilla’s goals for Firefox, which might not be the same as yours.

Lesson 5) Understand your goals. Pick, or adapt, a license that fits those goals

If you have additional tips on Intellectual Property and Open Source, feel free to share below.

Do you use Perl, Python or Tcl? Check out ActiveState's Enterprise Distributions and OEM licensing for Perl, Python and Tcl.

Connect with Romuald Restout:
Twitter: @rrestout
LinkedIn : www.linkedin.com/in/romuald
Blog : www.collabatwork.com

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Shannon Yelland is our online marketing manager. She's a web analytics enthusiast, SEO specialist, search engine marketing and social media geek. She is Google Adwords Certified and currently taking the UBC Business Intelligence Certificate. In her free time she shares her expertise on www.seedtheweb.com and Twitter.