Software laws 'clarified' by Victorian OSS body

Open Source Victoria, a government-funded software body, published a briefing paper on Tuesday designed to demystify some of the legal issues surrounding copyrights and patents in the software industry.The paper, titled Copyrights and Patents FAQ, was authored by the founder of specialist legal firm Open Source Law, Brendan Scott.

Open Source Victoria, a government-funded software body, published a briefing paper on Tuesday designed to demystify some of the legal issues surrounding copyrights and patents in the software industry.

The paper, titled Copyrights and Patents FAQ, was authored by the founder of specialist legal firm Open Source Law, Brendan Scott.

According to Scott, Copyrights and Patents FAQ was created to help the developer community better understand the legislation that governs how both open source and other software can be used: "The intention was to give some clarity... because generally these are things not well understood".

Scott told ZDNet Australia  that patents and copyright laws are generally misunderstood by developers, which means that software companies could easily find themselves in legal hot water.

"The biggest misunderstanding is that people treat [patents and copyrights] as things you might buy in a store. In fact there is a whole artificial structure around them and we need to understand that structure to understand the consequences," said Scott.

Because of the intricacies of licences, Scott believes that software companies are walking a minefield when using patented and copyrighted material.

"For example, a company may say, 'I have the right to use this patent or copyright'. That right may not allow other people to use it, so if you put it in your product you might discover that after the fact," said Scott.

Another issue, according to Scott, is that the legislation continues to evolve, so something that was legal last year may get a company into trouble this year.

"If five years ago you took out a licensing agreement that allowed you to do X, Y and Z, you might find that you are not be allowed to do the same now because they are not covered by the agreement -- the ground rules have changed around you," said Scott, who cited Australia's Free Trade Agreement with the US as an example.

"The Free Trade Agreement has recently changed the copyright act and is due to change it again by the end of next year to include provisions for Digital Rights Management (DRM). The legislation has been in a constant flux for the past 20 years so it will be changing in the future as well," he said.

The briefing paper, which is available for free download from the Open Source Victoria Web site, starts with a 'pearl of wisdom' from Scott, who writes: "You don't call a lawyer if you want someone to trouble shoot your network problems. Equally, a geek or a discussion list is the wrong place to look if you want legal advice. Also, and this may not be all that obvious, a person who provides legal advice to themselves has a fool for a client."

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