Open Source and IP -- Legal Advice

The second post in my series on IP and Open Source - obtaining and using legal advice.

You've decided to use Open Source in your project or prototype. You've learned a lot about Open Source and licensing. Next up (if you can afford it) is to obtain some sound legal advice to ensure you are taking the correct path. Sounds straightforward, but in my experience, it is not.

Open Source is still very new to a lot of people in the legal world. Your challenge is to find the best resource you can afford, making sure that the person is at least as up to speed on things as you are (trust me, not as easy as it sounds). The last thing you want to do is spend what little seed money you have on an attorney that learns the ropes on your dime. One suggestion for finding a knowledgeable person is to look at the law firms that are used by groups like OSI, Sourceforge (OSTG), etc. Check out their press releases and "about us" type links. (Full disclosure - my previous company MessageCast worked with Mark Radcliffe from DLA Piper, who is the General Counsel for OSI)

Once you select an attorney, strive to make the most of your time with them. Come prepared for any and all meetings. Do as much prep work as possible to put the relevant info at their fingertips. A good agenda item for the first meeting is to discuss the different Open Source licensing schemes (GPL, LGPL, etc) and make sure that your understanding of each is correct. Ask the attorney to walk through different scenarios ("what happens if we use GPL on our website, but don't distribute?", "what happens if we modify Apache 2.0 code and distribute", etc etc). Be clear what your business model is/will be - will you be distributing code or running it all in a SOA framework? In my experience, the two major issues to work through will be distribution and modification.

Since you have already done some homework on the licensing issues, you should be able to wrap-up an initial session in as little as two or three hours. Your total costs might be as high as $3000, but the up-front work you do now can literally be a primary determinant on whether or not your company moves forward.

Once you are in agreement with the attorney on the nature of the different licenses, document what you have learned. Boil down the major points into an easy to understand table, making it easy enough to post on your Dev Wiki. Review the Wiki entry with everyone involved, making sure that they understand the big picture view. Most of all, make sure they understand that licenses differ and the future of your company depends on them.