Legal support to free and open source software projects

SFLC will bring to notice violations of licence terms

The non-profit Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), which recently formalised its presence in the country by opening an office in New Delhi, has set up a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) defence centre.

Founded in 2005 in the United States, the SFLC provides legal representation and other services to protect FOSS in the legal domain. Since its inception, it has legally supported and taken up the cause of many major free software and open source projects and organisations, including the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the Apache Software Foundation, the Drupal and the Gnome Foundation.

The SFLC, New Delhi, has been registered as an independent non-profit society. It has been active in India since 2006 and has worked with various organisations, including the FSF, India; the Centre for Internet and Society; the Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment; the Confederation of Indian Industries and different companies.

The extensive use of FOSS in India by software and hardware companies has given rise to many instances of it being used in a ‘non-compliant' manner, says Mishi Choudhary, SFLC counsel, who oversees its activities in India. The FOSS is generally distributed under different licences that mandate certain freedoms in their use and distribution. Essentially, these include the freedom to use the software, have access to and modify the source code and redistribute it.

“Non-compliance refers to the fact the software packages are being used in violation of the license terms under which they are distributed. The SFLC will bring such violations to the notice of the violators and will help them come into compliance,” Ms. Choudhary said. However, given that it wants people to use FOSS as much as possible, ensuring compliance, rather than taking recourse to litigation was the main objective. About global challenges to FOSS, she said that software patents were a “minefield” that inhibited innovation. “In India, as per the Patents Act, 1970 ‘computer program' per se is not patentable. But every year approximately 1,000 patent applications are being filed, and almost 100 patents are being granted in this field.”

“This is a dangerous phenomenon making writing a computer program a risky proposition, where you could be sued for infringement by corporations holding software patents. This could seriously impede the growth of the software industry in India as well as put shackles on development of FOSS,” she said.

More recently, some hugely popular FOSS software packages have been taken over by large companies that deal in proprietary software. But this need not make much of a difference to the scheme of things if the licensing part has been properly dealt with, she said. “New ownership may bring new outlooks or new commercial intentions, but the underlying structure of relationship between community development and profit-making business doesn't change.”

“If a project has chosen its inbound and outbound licensing wisely, and has put strong internal governance mechanisms in place, changes in the ownership of copyrights should not make much practical difference. Where projects have not paid attention to these matters, changes in ownership may make the process of catching up with lost opportunities more time-consuming or more stressful,” she said.

In India, the SFLC would be focusing on serving the FOSS community in the areas of licensing, litigation support, trademark counselling, patent defence, non-profit organisational assistance, public education and lawyer training, protection of digital civil liberties and supporting the FOSS initiatives in education.

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 4:20:13 PM |

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