Linux developers warned to watch their backs

An Australian lawyer has cautioned open-source developers to protect themselves or face being enmeshed in the web of Linux lawsuits

In the wake of the ongoing SCO lawsuit, open-source developers must take steps to ensure they don't become the victims of further legal action.

In a presentation at Linux.conf.au 2004 in Adelaide, specialist Australian IT lawyer Jeremy Malcolm said that while it was widely anticipated in the open-source community that SCO's lawsuit against IBM for alleged copyright infringement would eventually collapse, the case had drawn attention to the relative lack of control over copyright and patent infringement within many projects.

"The open-source community has been quite lucky not to suffer an attack like SCO has brought sooner," Malcolm said.

SCO is expected to release details of the code that it says has been illegally included in Linux on 23 January. However, the trial is not due to take place until 11 April, 2005. "In between those two dates, there's a lot of uncertainty for the open-source community," Malcolm commented.

One of the biggest potential risks for developers is unwitting infringement of patents. "The fact that you don't copy any code doesn't necessarily clear you," Malcolm said. "You have to honour patents that you may not even have heard of."

To ensure that development projects don't fall apart over legal concerns, Malcolm recommends ensuring contributing developers sign a document certifying that their contributions are original.

"The best protection for an open-source project against liability is to make the developers the ones who have the liability on their shoulders," he said. Developers who have worked for former employers on software and later decide to contribute to similar open-source projects should also seek permission from those employers to avoid potential issues, Malcolm added.

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