Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), founded in 2005, provides
legal representation and other law-related services to protect and advance Free
and Open Source Software (FOSS). The center has, to its credit, many free
software and open source projects assisting non-profit open source developers.
Besides, Apache Software Foundation, OLPC, Wine project, Samba, and
OpenOffice.org, its latest addition has been the introduction of Version 3 of
the General Public License (GPL), the software license governing the GNU-Linux
operating system where SFLC worked with Free Software Foundation.
Eben Moglen, chairman of SFLC, has helped to launch this company
in 2005. Moglen shares his struggle between open source and proprietary
How conducive is the current legislative framework in
confronting the stronghold (or rather the stranglehold) of giants like
The free software idea is pretty well entrenched now. The programs here are
at par, even if not exceeding their proprietary counterparts. Most companies and
the likes of national governments like that of Brazil have perceived the
software advantage. But the political influence and economic clout of Microsoft
and its satellites is a reality. Microsoft is the largest deeply funded monopoly
in the history that has set its face struggling against the idea that software
is a knowledge and has to be shared. Some proprietary software service companies
from India also support Microsoft.
You have said once that the ownership of ideas seems repugnant
and the patent system wont exist anymore. What are the implications of
patents as speed breakers to free software?
This area entails the long-term monopoly of some software companies. The
idea is to challenge both patenting of overall software as well as particular
patents. There is some action happening on seeking the refusal of particular
patent applications as well as in a change to the patent policy on an overall
You have also supported the Wine project. How did that shape up?
Wine is a compatibility layer for running Windows programs in non-Windows
environments, which makes it possible to run Windows applications, such as
Microsoft Office, on Linux desktops. Wine enables users of other operating
systems to run Microsoft Applications without using Microsofts proprietary
OS. All this, is without touching the Windows environment.
But would it be easy given the proprietary hold of Microsoft?
What legal entanglements does it generate?
It will cover the use of published protocol. Microsoft is anyways under
pressure from some quarters of the globe to document the protocol in a better
way. The project is surfeit with legal issues, and complicated technology
because Microsoft will defend program interfaces. We, however, dont interfere
and fiddle in reverse engineering. The final bit would depend on how users and
sellers around the world absorb it because Microsoft has made them afraid
The legal clearing of Wireless Software for Linux is another
feather in SFLCs cap. Can you share something on that?
This area covers the issue of pressure to eliminate free software in
wireless domain. All major telephone companies are using it, but its still
under proprietary engineering control and regulators. Free software enables
alternate telephone systems. It relates to the SDR technology for radio
transmission in equipment. But the men of command in the US are in control of
SDR and wont allow the technology to develop. The primary issues here are
regulatory. The regulatory system prohibits the technology that makes cheaper
telephone calls easier. This issue is captive to political clout, who are in
turn, powered by people who overcharge calls. We have complicated protection
scheme for handling this subject. This will play out in the next five years or
so and is going to be very complicated.
What is your take on the argument that open source code jocks
also resort to reverse engineering tactics?
On the other hand, proprietary code is of low quality. People who do not
understand the value of sharing make it. Take any faculty; it is dead, if its
not shared. It cannot evolve if its not open to multiple ideas, perspectives,
and future work. If a work of chemistry is owned and closed, what possible use
or benefit does it give to the world? Reverse engineering is a possibility only
in rare cases. We ensure that technology retains its right to share. Discussion
determines the rules of sharing, unlike Microsoft that prefers to be confined
inside the building.
So what in your view is SFLCs best case study so far?
Well, since our job is essentially to prevent problems of the future domain,
the spectrum of our work tends to be confidential. On behalf of the free
software foundation, we have done a lot of work that covered four years of
lawyer time in the last 18 months, lot of publicity, and public information
work. This also includes assisting a number of projects that wanted to merge or
divide. We helped people do in a co-operative way what capitalists have done
And are there any criteria for picking your cases?
It comes from a series of experiences and also my 15 years of proactive
judgements about technology. We also look at legal exigencies, degree of legal
risk, technological value of the software in future, R&D implications, and
the future of the software.
You visited India recently. How does India picture in your map?
We have raised funds here. I also met the CM of Kerala who has embraced the
free software idea. The trip entailed talks with IT clients and understanding
the situation of patents here. A large number of patentable applications and
associated controversies still continue despite the changes made in the law. We
have looked into the potential legal consequences. SFLC has opened an office in
Delhi where Nishu Chaudhari will take charge. We will have two lawyers rooted
here by the end of 2008.
What is the financial model behind running a pro-bono
organization like SFLC?
We give free legal services to developers. We collect voluntary donations to
give the highest possible legal confidence for open source supporters and
projects. Its a question that is crucial in the 21st century, which embodies
the freedom of economy. But we are not the conspired headquarters of FOSS.
So, what is your current pool of funds?
I have been traveling around and ensuring that from volunteer donations. All
I can tell now is that we have enough for now to beat a $50 bn company.