Defenders of Free Software in the Legal Sphere

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Summary 

The Defenders of Free Software by Ashlee Vance was published in 2010 by The New York Times. It is about an enthusiastic, free and open source software (FOSS) volunteer watchman named Armijn Hemel. Vance chronicles Hemel’s experience sending cease-and-desist letters to large companies–like Dell, Google, TiVo and Sony–who use FOSS, but do not follow the conditions of FOSS licenses. Vance explains that licensing enforcement is a recurring problem because large companies “often opt to piggyback on the work of others rather than going through the ordeal of building all of the software for their products from scratch.” Vance examines potential solutions to this problem; mainly, that some FOSS and open source groups, like the Linux Foundation, are creating programs to make it easier for companies to keep track of the licenses they are using, so they can avoid lawsuits.

Why should you read this article?

Vance explains the lifestyle, intentions, and outcomes of Hemel’s work, which helps the reader understand why Hemel (and other FOSS volunteers) promote licensing enforcement. The article is personal, but also explains the broader implications of FOSS activism in the legal sphere. In addition, Vance mentions activist groups like the Software Freedom Law Center and gpl-violations.org. Name-dropping these organizations allows the reader to learn more about those groups.

Critiques 

Although Vance explains what legal FOSS volunteers undertake, he excludes how FOSS activists can contribute to the legal sphere. Additionally, the article excludes what contributor qualifications are needed or wanted. The article leaves out details about the effectiveness of the current volunteers, and does not predict if the solutions provided by the Linux Foundation will be effective in educating big companies on how to follow licenses. This point is important because most FOSS licenses are short and easy to follow. Lastly, some of the information Vance includes does not make sense for readers who do not understand business or law. For example, Vance states that “lawsuits are typically settled out of court,” but does not explain why a company would want to settle in or out of court.

Questions

  1. How can FOSS activists contribute to the FOSS legal sphere? 
  2. What qualifications and experience does Hemel have? What about other volunteers in FOSS law?   
  3. Why are FOSS lawsuits normally settled out of court?

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Portrait of Olivia Gallucci in garden, used in LNP article.

Written by Olivia Gallucci

Olivia is an honors student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She writes about security, open source software, and professional development.