Legal technicality puts Linux programmers at risk

Technicality could nullify liability disclaimers

A technicality in the installation process of package managers in several Linux distributions has highlighted a legal problem that could nullify liability disclaimers with some Linux software, according to Australian software house Bowerbird Computing.

Matthew Parry, founder of Bowerbird recently posted a press release suggesting that because disclaimers do not appear before installation on several distributions, Linux developers could be open to law suits if their programs cause problems.

Parry told ZDNet: "This was a result of advice from my lawyer. I asked him if he could read the liability disclaimers on our software and he said this could be a big problem. I thought I should post this basically to get people talking about it."

It could be a problem for two of the most popular Linux installation packages: Red Hat's Package Manager (RPM), and Debian Linux' (DPKG) Package Manager do not offer users a disclaimer before installing an application from the command line.

Although there is a GNU disclaimer displayed when most distributions of Linux are installed, this does not solve the problem of liability for each individual application.

Solicitor Richard Kemp of London based Kemp and Co. explained the potential problems. "Even if software is free, there is a copyright licence allowing you to use it. The golden rule is to make someone aware of a disclaimer at the time of the contractual arrangement. That means the time you are committed to using an application. Basically when you install it." Kemp is however, unsure of the practical implications. "I'm really not sure whether anyone could be prosecuted under this law. It depends on the situation."

Rob Carolina of the Tarlo Lyons law firm, also based in London, said that although liability may depend on specific circumstances, there is a potential danger for programmers and distributors of free software although he was unclear on who exactly could be held liable for software problems. "This is one of the basic tenets of British Contract Law... But it's not clear if you are entering into a contractual relationship with the people who wrote the code or with the owners of the database publishing it. The distributors could potentially also be held liable for designing the package manager."

Carolina urged the Linux community to take the matter seriously. "These people may be brilliant programmers but probably don't understand the legal situation. It is important to protect legitimate small developers."

Red Hat did not comment but a SuSE spokesman said he was unaware of the potential for problems. "I have to admit this is new to me," said Rudger Berlich managing director of SuSE UK. "I can easily believe this is true... It does makes sense. All I can say is, to the best of our knowledge, all our third party software is tried and tested."

These legal technicalities may pose a threat to programmers of free Linux applications, but it is also an issue for independent programmers of any software.

British Linux developer Alan Cox pointed out that the situation could be a legal nightmare for a whole range of Web based applications. "Every Java applet downloaded from the web does not come with a license you must click through first for example. Nor does every piece of HTML or JavaScript. If you follow the claims made to their logical conclusion they become ridiculous. Not even Windows forces you to agree to a license for each component of the system as you install it."

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