GitHub partners with Stanford Law for free legal clinic to protect developers

The Stanford Law School Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic will help developers hit with violations of Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

GitHub is partnering with Stanford University on a new initiative designed to protect the legal rights of open source developers.

Through its $1 million Developer Defense Fund, GitHub is creating the GitHub Developer Rights Fellowship at the Stanford Law School Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic.

In a statement, GitHub explained that the problem goes back to the creation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has a section -- 1201 -- that has made it illegal to use source code that bypasses measures that control access to copyrighted material.

GitHub said it is common for developers to be hit with takedown claims based on violations of Section 1201 and it is safer, as well as cheaper, to simply remove the code rather than fight it. The clinic will offer free legal support to developers dealing with takedown notices.

"We're excited to enhance the Juelsgaard Clinic's mission of informing and empowering open-source developers and the important work they do," said Phil Malone, professor of law and director of the Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic.

"GitHub's generous support for this fellowship will help ensure fair and open software development under the law and will defend the rights of a community whose creativity and innovations benefit us all," he added. 

Mike Linksvayer, head of developer policy at GitHub, said in a blog post that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was written to "strike a complicated balance between innovation, speech, and creative work online."

"This complexity -- in particular Section 1201, which prohibits circumvention of technological protection measures like digital rights management -- is especially hard on open source developers working in their spare time, without the resources of a large company behind them," Linksvayer said.  

GitHub explained that the rule "stifles innovation" and "pits freelance developers against big corporations." 

"In addition to the legal counsel, the fellow will do advocacy work on DMCA, and train other lawyers/students at the clinic to better support the legal infrastructure around the open source community," GitHub said.

"As part of GitHub's dedicated 1201 review process, when we notify a developer of a valid takedown claim, we will also give them the option to seek independent legal support through the clinic at no cost to them."

Linksvayer goes on to say that The Stanford Juelsgaard Clinic seeks to "shape intellectual property law and regulatory policies" that will help promote increased tech innovation and creativity by advocating on the behalf of innovators, entrepreneurs, and consumers. 

"When developers looking to learn, tinker, or make beneficial tools face a takedown claim under Section 1201, it is often simpler and safer to just fold, removing code from public view and out of the common good," Linksvayer said. 

"We want to make sure that developers on GitHub know their rights and have the backing to assert them. GitHub is committed to advocating for developers and helping define the policies that shape the software ecosystem and how developers can freely collaborate within it." 

On top of providing legal support for individual developers, The Stanford Juelsgaard Clinic fellow will be involved in research, education and advocacy efforts on DMCA and other legal issues important for software innovation.

The fellow will also be asked to help educate other students and lawyers in the clinic on how they can best assist developers. 

"GitHub stands committed to defending developers' rights on our platform and to advancing the interests of developers everywhere. Together with Stanford Law School's Juelsgaard Clinic, the Developer Rights Fellowship is the next step in that commitment," Linksvayer said.