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Back from EOLE

Wednesday I was at the European Parliament building for the EOLE. The event is a medium-sized (say 60 attendees) legal oriented event around Free Software; this year it featured a track full of definitional goodness — let’s try to formulate words commonly used in Free Software (in licenses, but also other writing) in terms that lawyers can understand.

This kind of event is useful because it works towards normalizing the vocabulary used by practitioners in this area: in other words, we end up calling a spade a spade. If we can agree on what “source code” means exactly in the context of the GPL (actually, version 3 has a fairly lengthy definition, which is something we can work with), then it becomes much easier to consistently advise projects and businesses on how they can best engage with Free Software.

Any get-together of people with a strong legal background in Free Software is sure to bring out some more interesting interpretations or corner cases. There’s always another jurisdiction or recent ruling to take into account, and of course every now and then another new license rears its ugly head (like the Jiggy Wanna license, which is basically Sleepycat if I read it right, but still different). In many ways the resulting discussion “dude! if you squint just like so and read the GPLv2, it turns into a dinosaur!” is a lot like a Free Software technology conference “dude! if you hold your breath and do this DBus call, dinosaurs come out of the firewire port!” Fun corner cases, even when we realize that the core values and meaning in uncomplicated cases (read: situations entered into in good faith by all parties) are well understood.

For me — and just how many times have I read the darn GPL, anyway? — the best insight of the day was the proviso of the GPL that says that the written offer of source code availability (if you don’t deliver the source with a binary distribution) must be valid for any third party. So that has a definite effect on your obligations under the GPL; it also affects some GPL-related advice I’ve given in the past to people, as I thought that the written offer applied only to those who have obtained the (binary) distribution. In a license, every letter counts (which is, in a sense, also unfortunate, because that’s why we have so many).

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