Scott told the Australian Unix Users Group's Open Computing in Government Conference this afternoon that he often experienced problems with the GPL, under which the large majority of open source software is licensed.
"It's often difficult to answer questions based on GPL version 2," he said, "because often it will define a term and not use it later on, or use a term that has a particular meaning in certain jurisdictions." Version 2 is the most commonly used GPL, although the GNU project is currently working on Version 3.
One example that Scott cited was the term 'derivative work', which fellow lawyer Ian Oi confirmed to the conference did not exist as a legal concept in Australian law. "Australian law has some analogues though," said Oi, in particular the concept of 'reproduction of a substantial part'. Oi is a specialist IT lawyer for law firm Blake Dawson Waldron.
Scott pointed out that the GPL may not even be consistently interpreted by lawyers in the United States, where it was initially written. "The USA has a system of circuit courts," he said. This caused a situation where "the meaning of a derivative work is not even consistent between states".
The solution, according to Scott, is easy. "Version 3 needs clearer language. There is a lot to be gained by returning to the language and clarifying it," he said. In addition, "we need terms relevant to our jurisdictions".
But it's not all bad news for those concerned with open source licences. "There are a lot of closed source licences where the wording is a lot worse," concluded Scott.