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Interviews: Ask Free Software Legal Giant Eben Moglen 56

At this summer's HOPE, Eben Moglen was one of the most incisive and entertaining speakers. But since only a small fraction of the Earth's population can fit into an aging hotel meeting room, you can watch his HOPE presentation via on making the first law of robotics apply to cell phones. Besides being a professor at Columbia Law, former clerk in U.S. federal court as well as to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and a prolific writer, Moglen is founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center as well as the creator of the FreedomBox Foundation, and was for many years general counsel of the Free Software Foundation. Moglen has strong opinions, and a lot to say, about software licensing and freedom, copyright, patents, and (as you can see from the video linked above) about the privacy implications of always-on, always-on-us technology. Next week, I'll be meeting up with Moglen for a short interview. If you have a question for Eben, please post it below; I can't guarantee how many reader questions I'll have a chance to ask him, but the more, the merrier.
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Interviews: Ask Free Software Legal Giant Eben Moglen

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  • How do you feal about app stores? with there lock in and censorship issues?

    Also do you think that it may end in court some day?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 12, 2012 @02:25PM (#41633891)

    I thought I'd take a law degree. I was doing well, but I quit after a year.

    To put it bluntly, the US system of law is bullshit. A lawyer's job is not to make a purposive argument, as in Europe, but to get his client off on a technicality of wording. In criminal law, the impartiality of the jury is corrupted by a non-random final selection process. Regardless, law is as far as possible from something the common man is able to understand and defend himself with - though that is surely the purpose of rule of law over rule of man.

    In short, by studying the law I was giving myself an advantage which every citizen should already have.

    Hasn't the law just become a lawyer's game, today?

    • with some laws as well as contracts you need to be a lawyer just to understand the legal part. Now will be are push to make that part easier to under stand just look at eula's where even if you read it all you still need to a be a lawyer to understand what you are singing.

    • ... law is as far as possible from something the common man is able to understand and defend himself with ... In short, by studying the law I was giving myself an advantage which every citizen should already have.

      I'm not sure why this is modded as flamebait — I'm qualified as a lawyer (although don't really think of myself as "a lawyer"), and I think there's a huge amount of merit in this. I wouldn't claim that law in Europe (or, perhaps more properly, any of the different states, since legal systems are not harmonised) is perfect, nor necessarily better, since I don't know the US system, but I do certainly agree that, if ignorance of the law is to be no defence, there needs to be fewer laws, more easily und

      • This is a good point to discuss, but asking a lawyer about this in an interview is exactly what flamebait is.

        • asking a lawyer about this in an interview is exactly what flamebait is.

          Really? I think it's a very fair question to ask a lawyer — not all of whom think that the status quo is desirable. Eben is perhaps a particularly good candidate for such a question, as he's clearly a thinker, and is involved in both teaching students and the practice of law.

          I could be wrong, and Eben, if asked, may spew all-caps vitriol in response to this, but I reckon he'd treat it as an interesting question.

    • This is why rich people almost always get off the hook in the legal system, it only applies to the 99%. What's important to understand is that laws from a basic / human rights perspective rarely make sense and are meant as more of a situational band aid... take something common like a DUI for example, it punishes drunk driving (quite severely in some cases), but it doesn't take into account the difference in how much the person has drank, or if when they were pulled over they were actually being a danger o

  • by LetterRip ( 30937 ) on Friday October 12, 2012 @02:29PM (#41633943)

    It is often asserted (ie by the FSF) that exposed C/C++/Python APIs for GPL software can't be used by non GPLed code unless a specific exception has been added to the license.

    However, a non GPLed binary compatible API could be done that the plugin, etc. can be compiled against. Given that it seems like the GPL could not be enforced against driver compiled against a binary compatible API. Ie Alan Coxes recent assertion that Nvidia wasn't allowed to use a certain internal feature of the kernel should be readily made technically irrelevant, since Nvidia could create a stub binary compatible equivalent to the API to compile against, and then the user can install the driver and use it with the GPLed kernel without violating the GPL.

    Is there a flaw in this reasoning or do programmers have a way to readily use GPLed APIs as closed source without violating the GPL?

    • Bypassing the API (Score:3, Interesting)

      by cormander ( 1273812 )
      On a similar topic; what about when the code bypasses the API altogether, and writes code changes directly to memory? Things such as kernel hot patches come to mind, and more specifically, ksplice. A modification to the code on a GPLv2 program is made, but no linking or APIs are used. How bound by the GPL, if at all, would this program be?
      • Pretty much anything like that is guaranteed to be a derivative work of the kernel/GPLv2 application and thus subject to the license. Particularly the output of ksplice since it acts on kernel sources directly.

    • by Desler ( 1608317 )

      and then the user can install the driver and use it with the GPLed kernel without violating the GPL.

      The user of the driver wouldn't be violating the GPL no matter what. The GPL comes into play upon distribution not use.

      • "The user of the driver wouldn't be violating the GPL no matter what. The GPL comes into play upon distribution not use."

        I meant that the getting of the driver to the user without distributing the source to the driver would not violate the GPL.

    • A point/example I meant to raise above would be projects like WINE or Dalvik, that reimplement APIs that are binary compatible with APIs of other OSes. Obviously I can compile a a program against the official windows API and then run it in WINE, and yet the LGPL (or GPL if I compiled the WINE using that clause) would almost certainly not make my software a derivative of the WINE software. This seems directly analagous to the case above where I rewrite a binary compatible API, compile against it, then run

      • by Desler ( 1608317 )

        Well of course it wouldn't be a derivative of Wine. You didn't link to any of the Wine code. Also, there is no GPL version to compile of Wine. It is strictly LGPL.

        Basically, since you can't copyright the API itself, as long as you reimplement the API yourself such that your version is not a derivative work itself there are no copyright issues. Even if it ultimately ends up running against a GPLed implementation due to binary compatibility.

        • Read the LGPL license - at the users option it can be converted to the GPL.

          • You mean 'converted to GPL' only on a re-release and redistribute ?

            This presumes the user has access to the source code of the LGPL work in the first place. The user can not convert to GPL if they don't have the source code of the LGPL work, since thy could never honour their own obligations. A LGPL user can not demand source code from the redistribution point they received a binary works.

    • Why not NDIVIA just wrapper the API symbols in new NVIDIA Copyrighted code that is also GPL and re-export new symbol names.

      This extra "shim" module is now free for use by the NVIDIA blob the link against since it is both compliant with GPL and since they are the Copyrights holder they can provide special license back to themselves for their binary blob.

      I find it funny that symbols can have licenses on them, in that all NVIDIA needs to do provide a crappy implementation of the same API mechanics to prove to

    • by tolan-b ( 230077 )

      On a related note, the application of the GPL to scripting languages is terribly unclear as linking isn't something that happens there. There seems to be no decent advice out there on how to apply the GPL when a script library uses it.

      • by grumbel ( 592662 )

        Yep, things also get extremely unclear when it comes to media. Can I for example use a CC-by-sa graphics in a GPL'ed game? Can I ship them in the same .zip? Can I inline them into the same .exe? It's not clear where aggregation stops and where it starts to be a derived work. And just as for scripting language, I haven't seen any good advice on how to deal with those situations either. People on Debian might complain and rip graphics out of a game before they package it, but there is very little good advice

  • by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Friday October 12, 2012 @02:36PM (#41634011) Homepage
    If you were to stand next to Software Titan Bill Gates, would you both seem normal-sized?
  • I am writing a video game by myself. I don't have money to pay a lawyer for a EULA. Can I copy/paste a game similar to mine's EULA, and make modifications by hand? Is it better to have a bad and hacky EULA than no EULA at all?
    • Not legal advice, but some thoughts:

      I'm qualified as a lawyer (and employed as one, but I'm not your lawyer, this is not legal advice etc.) and it's a subject close to my heart. Were I in your position — I wish I were as talented to be able to write a video game — I would ask myself what I was hoping to achieve with the EULA. Is it because other games flash something up in front of a user that you feel you should have one too?

      I'd ask myself what is it that I was looking to achieve with it?

    • Interesting one to me; the GPL [] is itself under copyright and asserts that it shall only be copied and distributed, not changed (except by, say, section-7 exceptions); but see also "Can I modify the GPL and make a modified license? []". Of course, the GPL is No Ordinary EULA(tm), and only requires you to agree to it when modifying or "propagating" the work.

    • I am writing a video game by myself. I don't have money to pay a lawyer for a EULA.

      But you can afford all the hardware and services required to develop and distribute your Indie production?

      Have you taken into account all other possible legal issues?

      The one-man-band is rare.

      The guy who is equally adept at game design and programming, art and animation. Music and sound. Vocal performance... and so on, endlessly.

      Somewhere along the way you are going to need help with your project..

      You need to be thinking about property rights, performance rights, about contacts.

    • No. EULAs are written works much like anything else, and therefore subject to copyright themselves.

  • Eben — we spoke about FreedomBox at the FSFE conference in Amsterdam a couple of years back now. It sounded then, just as it does not, an interesting project. I've kept an eye on it over the last couple of years, and am pleased to see it's got to a developer release; I've ordered a plug server to be able to test it out. I'm keen to understand how you plan on turning it from a niche project for geeks into something in the mass market. I know you are working on making the GUI user-friendly, so it is su

  • We all remember MS's Halloween documents. However, the battle for F/OSS is going to shift from dealing with patents, to dealing with closed hardware, platform lockdowns, and anti-F/OSS EULAs.

    With hardware being secured, it is likely places will be able to use GPL code without having to adhere to the license, because people won't be able to find out, and if they do, they did it running afoul of the DMCA or other treaties which would render any civil judgement moot.

    Is there a way to slow down the "Tivo-izati

  • ... only a small fraction of the Earth's population can fit into an aging hotel meeting room, ...

    If only they had chosen a newer hotel... Of course, having the entire Earth's population all in one place [] also has its problems.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The GPL FAQ states

    Linking (a library released under the GPL) statically or dynamically with other modules is making a combined work based on (the GPL'd library). Thus, the terms and conditions of the GNU General Public License cover the whole combination.

    If the link is dynamic, the person making the link (the end user) is not distributing the combined work, nor is the distributor of the client program if he does not also distribute the library. By what legal theory does distribution of the client program b

  • Dear Mr Moglen, I am developing proprietary software which will eventually become an "appliance" of sorts, and will need a kernel to run on. However, this software will also require proprietary NIC drivers, extensions to the kernel's TCP/IP stack, and overall, will add many functions which need to run in kernel-space and be accessible by user-space programs. The Linux kernel's somewhat recent move toward "GPL-only symbols" presents a problem for people like myself, who are suddenly no longer sure Linux i
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Is copyright infringement theft?

    I'm interested in both a moral/ethical answer and in a legal answer (bonus points for an answer in "international law" since I'm not American).

    • I have no idea what do you mean by "international law".

      As for the US, the SCOTUS said "interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The Copyright Act even employs a separate term of art to define one who misappropriates a copyright: '[...] an infringer of the copyright.'".

  • I've recently been championing an interpretation of Network Neutrality which assumes that all ISP customers (of all service tiers) have the right to host and run servers from their connections (presuming IPv6 environment, ignoring IPv4 address scarcity case). I apparently even got Dave Schroeder, someone who publicly identifies themselves in slashdot comments as a Navy Information Warfare Officer to give high praise[1] to a draft of my manifesto[2], which, with his help (getting an email address) has led i

  • Having worked with Thurgood Marshall and teaching at an Ivy League Law School you witness and can contribute to many causes I'm sure you find more than worthy of your attention. I'm sure people in many areas would love the benefit of your skills, knowledge, etc. Yet your long-term dedication to software freedom (not sure if that term encompasses everything you work on, but I hope it suffices) seems focused. I bet many of us are curious where your motivation and focus comes from, especially those looking to

  • The ZFS filesystem is a robust, modern filesystem originially developed on Sun Solaris that contains many advanced features and is being used (among other things) on the largest computer in the world, LLNL Sequoia, which is running Linux.

    ZFS is licensed under the Sun CDDL, which is an OSS-approved license. As ZFS was originally developed for Solaris, it is not a derived work of Linux or other GPL software. There is little hope of getting the ZFS copyright owner (Oracle) to relicense it under GPL. Since ope

Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in high spirits. -- Robert Louis Stevenson