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Open Source Software

What Can a Lawyer Do For Open Source? 162

zolltron writes "I have a friend who went to law school. He really enjoyed intellectual property law, and he seems to genuinely regret that he didn't end up as an IP lawyer. But, what's done is done, and he's not going to radically change career trajectories now. But, I think he might be interested in volunteering a little of his time if there was an interesting project he could get behind. Computer folks are always trying to figure out how to get involved in open source even if it won't be their full time job. So, now I ask you Slashdot, how can my friend use his expertise to help an open source project?"
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What Can a Lawyer Do For Open Source?

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  • by MrEricSir ( 398214 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @04:47PM (#34714412) Homepage

    Perhaps they could use some help? []

    • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

      by Yvanhoe ( 564877 )
      The Pirate Party needs all the lawyers it can get. National pirate parties have varied quality but at least join the PP-int mailing list ( legal advices can certainly be appreciated there.
      • by bigredradio ( 631970 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @08:07PM (#34716714) Homepage Journal
        What does the Pirate Party have to do with OpenSource? I am an advocate of OpenSource and CC because it is Free software. I do not agree with Piracy. That is why I use it. The fact that someone does not want to pay for something does not make it Free. That is just being a jackass.
        • As long as I can walk into a store, buy a DVD or CD, determine "that sucked", and then be denied the right to return that shit for a refund (or credit), I will continue to endorse sharing as a way to "try before you buy" in order to avoid being ripped off.
          Hell - even the lowly candybar makers have a refund policy if you don't enjoy their product. Record and movie companies should do the same because the price is ~20 times higher, and therefore that much more painful to the consumer's limited budget.

        • Well for one thing, the Pirate Party is probably the only political part in most countries that even gives a shit about open source on ethical or ideological grounds, not just "hey, free software lolololol" grounds.

    • He can draft proposed laws which could then be submitted to congress. It is no secret that congress does not write its own laws. Instead they take bills drafted by special interests and blindly submit them for a vote. Right now open source doesn't have much of a presence in congress. Your friend could change that by drafting proposed bills that would fix some of the troublesome laws we have.
    • Also []
    • by RichM ( 754883 )
      While they don't strictly deal with Open Source, the Electronic Frontier Foundation [] can always use more help and often have the same ideals as the Open Source movement.
  • by eparker05 ( 1738842 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @04:50PM (#34714452)

    It would help to know what field of law he is in.

    • specifics (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 30, 2010 @05:46PM (#34715044)

      A few things can be done simply by being a lawyer at all.
      - Recruiting other lawyers, including IP folks, at bar association and other lawyer-only events. Not to mention posting ads in bar association newsletters and hosting events at bar association buildings and finding and encouraging relevant CLE events.

      - Writing readily available and current guides to open source for the rest of us, especially the differences between the GPL and other licenses. A good chart of those differences would be golden. Again, especially if kept current AND READILY FINDABLE INLINE. not just in theory, but in case law and in terms of the corporate and institutional moves that could be learned just fine by spending enough time following links from right here on /. and following up on things like Westlaw.
      Even not being an IP lawyer, (s)he's still better equipped than most, if only from access to Lexis-Nexis, to build an educated view of what the issues are, for example how companies can use open source and still stay in compliance both with those terms and confidentiality requirements of contractors. Or what code can pass on in commercial products that then use that open source code, etc.

      - This isn't open source as such, but there's also a real need for more guides to fair use in general. I've looked high and low and nobody seems to keep a current site about what can and can't legally be photographed, for example. I *do* know that lots of the regulations about taking pictures of private facilities, for example, are bullshit. As in in conflict with the law. But try explaining that without cases and regulation, right down to number, on paper right there when some goon is sent out to grab your camera because you were taking pictures through the chain link fence.
      Same for the ever-changing limits of TSA-controlled areas. When a woman can be kept from flying for "unusual contours of the buttocks" and supposedly have no legal recourse, well, looks like we could use some help there to me. Same goes for sampling music or the many related fields. And again, actual case citations and regulations listed by number and category.

      Just being able to "presort" is of value, if only to help people in trouble find an IP lawyer who can finish the job. The EFF is great but they ain't everybody, esp. since it can help to have a local lawyer for some things.

      - Another possibility is to get involved in helping open-source related organizations get legal standing as non-profits and fund and charter endowments. There are plenty of open source projects that could qualify as non-profits and when I talk to them about it they look vaguely interested but they have neither the skills nor the understanding of how it could help them out to actually get it done. Endowments? Don't get me started. For example, New York's ABC No Rio computer center has hosted many events and teach-ins that help open source and they're always short of help of many kinds. Same for many Free Skools. There are at least fifty infoshops in this country that could do the same IF they were more stable and somebody did the work of getting the right people together in the right place on a repeating basis. Lawyer as yenta is a role that goes back centuries. It's not what people think of as a lawyer's role but it works. Especially since most lawyers can quietly and unobtrusively slip in the twenty bucks now and again that can (absurdly enough) be what stands between a project getting moving and five more fucking meetings over the course of a year to "achieve consensus".

      Ya see, a lot of this is about culture. Ask Autumn Wiggins about the work she's doing right now to bring open source tools to the crafting world. Or all of us who simply never took R.M. Stallman as seriously as we could have because, well, he doesn't listen, doesn't move beyond his circles and, at least in my day, didn't bathe. And lawyers are, in their very different way, trained as hackers. As masters of social engineering. Of getting institutions to do what they want through the

  • First things first (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Critical Facilities ( 850111 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @04:50PM (#34714456)
    Well, you say your friend went to law school. However, you don't mention whether or not he passed the Bar Exam and/or if he is currently practicing law. Both of these pieces of information would probably be helpful
    • Actually, a third piece of information is probably the most helpful - what area of the law is he qualified to practice in?

  • Obviously (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 30, 2010 @04:52PM (#34714490)

    He can post here and end his rants with "IAAL".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 30, 2010 @04:53PM (#34714496)

    The project which advocates open source governance [] has been trying over the years to coalesce into a formal organization, but desperately needs a lawyer to figure out how. A normal non-profit can just put together a board of directors and organize in their home country. But Metagovernment has two huge problems with this: first, they cannot/will-not be controlled by a small group of empowered individuals (completely goes against their core principles), and second they are explicitly not aligned with any nation or national interest. See their page on the issue: []

    No, it is not open source software, but seeing as open source governance is derived from the principles of free and open source software, I thought it may be of interest. Especially since the need for a lawyer here is really profound.

    • Wouldn't the US be open source government since all of the laws, regulations, and charters for government be openly available? That is essentially "the code".
      • by pjt33 ( 739471 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @05:19PM (#34714762)

        Good luck making a fork.

        • Good luck making a fork.

          The US and most of the British commonwealth DID - it's called english common law.

          It's a form of law that dates back to when a country separated from English rule, and allows the government to have a base set of laws to build upon, rather than having to make laws up after a potential crime has been committed.

          Some countries have not changed a lot of their laws and still fall back on english common law on occasion.

          By the way, IANAL, I just like the odd bit of history and law.

          • by pjt33 ( 739471 )

            You see have have got my point and missed it at the same time. The only way to make a fork would be a unilateral declaration of independence, and it's rather likely that before you'd made more than trivial patches you'd find that declaration being disputed by force.

            (FWIW I'd consider it rather more realistic to describe English common law as dating back to the Dark Ages, if not before. It was the legal system in England before it was a colonial power).

            • That would be starting over. A fork is merely branching off the existing base. A state constitution would be a fork, county charter, city charter, hoa, etc. Forks until you're blue in the face, and they all build on the same base "application" with their own customizations
        • by sco08y ( 615665 )

          They did, a while back, but it didn't work out so well. []

      • by Anonymous Coward

        It is open in that it is readable, but it does not have other characteristics of FOSS: namely, it is pretty darn difficult for a random person with a good idea to contribute code and have it committed to the trunk. Try it some time. :)

        • States that have the initiative/proposition process fit that mold. Still must be approved, but any random joe can write up a bill and submit it as long as it gets enough votes.
        • It's a high-impact project, so it has some extra controls - to get write access to the repository, you have to be a special class of user called a "Congressman", and all code commits must be approved by a committee called "the Senate", and ultimately the final approval is vested in the super-user known as "the President". The people using your code get to determine if you keep write access every so often.

          • That's one of the best descriptions of congress that I've ever heard.
          • by Teancum ( 67324 )

            This is one reason why I think geeks should get more involved in politics as anybody who can fight through the bureaucracy of a typical open source project to commit code to the main branch of a project more than has the skills to be able to do the same thing to legislation.

            If anything, getting legislation changed is much easier because most people are apathetic about what happens in their government and the people who are in charge of writing legislation (or have "write access" as you suggest here) are usu

    • by kabrakan ( 13409 )

      My organization (which publishes OSS) is doing the same thing, and is using a law student to help coalesce the group into a formal entity (of which there are many types each with their own pros and cons). I'm sure there are many organizations in the same condition, and having someone do the (arduous) research to formalize the entity will help in procuring grants and other sources of funding that aren't available to informal entities.

  • Volunteer with EFF (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Joe Snipe ( 224958 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @04:57PM (#34714530) Homepage Journal

    I bet they have all sorts of odd research and writing they could use help.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      I've volunteered with the EFF doing exactly that.

      Some of the research is rigorous and time-consuming, for example, I had to examine a diagram which mandated the use of a bix nood mated to a gollywog. I believe that gig involved a patent-trolling firm called Moon Cricket, which manufactured ultrasonic insect repellant devices.

      However, their patent was overly broad and they were going after manufacturers of certain peripherals.
      • Hey, Ethanol-fueled, how do I volunteer with the EFF? I only see volunteering options for technologists and general volunteers on their page.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          If you have a background in law then you may be able to get an internship. []

          Also note that the volunteer rules are general guidelines and not all that strict in actuality. The EFF need all the help they can get, so contact Bernie Robinson( and give him a brief description of your background. They throw great parties after headways are made in cases.

          Note that, unfortunately, internships are unpaid and cannot furnish J visas.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Who the fuck modded this informative? Google the terms "bix nood" "gollywog" and "moon cricket". This is an obvious troll.

  • One thing that I wish I did was go through law school so I could litigate Internet-based rights. For example, a recent story on /. covered a case that went to trial that was basically about freedom of speech. [] If I were in your friends' shoes, I would open a private practice and tailor it to the needs of those who need their rights protected online. You should also suggest that your friend checkout
    • Re:Private Practice (Score:5, Informative)

      by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @05:23PM (#34714818)

      Actually no, that case covered a fairly straightforward legal technicality.

      The plaintiff obtained an injunction against an individual independant website-poster and then tried to use it to compel the 3rd party website-host to comply. The website-host argued that the injunction didn't compel him to act because it was against the poster, and the court agreed.

      The plaintiff needs to compel the original poster to act (so far the poster has not responded), or seek an injunction against the website host. All the court ruled here was the technical point that they can't use an injunction against party A vs party B.

      An analogy would be if the police had a warrant to search your house, but when they got there and didn't find what they were looking they figured you'd moved the object of their search into a storage locker you were renting. You weren't around so they knocked on the storage companies doors asking to search the locker, showing you the warrant. And they turned around and said, "um no, this warrant doesn't have anything to do with us." And the court would agree... suggesting they get an appropriate warrant to actually do what they want to do.

      Even if the police have absolute proof that the object they are looking for is in that locker, the warrant they have is the wrong tool to get it. And that's exactly what's happened here. "Free speech" as it turns out is just in the background to the case.

  • as carpenter, railroad worker, builder, engeneer, pilot...

    generally, the less we have of people who mind others businness the better we fare...

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I work at a law firm (IT support), most of them.... some of... there a few.. there's a couple that ain't half bad.
    • "Look at me, I'm better than you, I can do 5 things poorly!"

      Let me guess, you'd prefer a country without Rule of Law, like Somalia?

      Or you just don't like the laws, and blame the wrong people?

      Or you just want to blame the people that would do good with a law degree, because some other person with one did bad?

      Lots of bad carpenters out there, shouldn't blame you for it though. I dunno what an engeneer is though, so I can't if they have bad ones.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The open street map project is currently planning to change their license from the established CC-by-SA (GPL-like), to something new and untested called the ODbL (LGPL-like).

    IANAL but I play one on the internet and I've read the thing, and both it and the new contributer agreement are a mess. A terrible mess. Apparently it's been looked at by a real lawyer, but I still see much sloppiness which translates to loop holes many an evil company could drive trucks through.

    Task: review the two documents pro-bono a

  • by Neil_Brown ( 1568845 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @05:17PM (#34714736) Homepage

    There are a number of us who happily chip into - hopefully, it sometimes leads to resolutions of GPL-based legal issues, but fascinating for discussion too.

    Education: I enjoy talking / lecturing about issues related to open source / Free software, problems I perceive with copyright, issues around the commons and the public domain etc. - education activities, helping both lawyers and interested members of the general public. I also like writing about open source topics, from a legal point of view - dispelling FUD, or highlighting areas of actual risk, can be beneficial. Even contributing to your local LUG might be helpful.

    Contributing to project documentation - perhaps not strictly legal-related, but, as a lawyer, I hope I can communicate clearly. Since documentation is often considered secondary to code in open source projects, yet is important, I felt I could contribute.

    Pro bono work - very occasionally, a pro bono project comes up which needs open source advice, and I'll happily take on those. If you have a local pro bono centre, which has a wider remit than housing / family / private client issues, then, you might be able to register there and offer guidance. I would not hold out any hope of it being a regular source of projects, but perhaps worth a try.

  • help groklaw (Score:4, Informative)

    by mrflash818 ( 226638 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @05:21PM (#34714786) Homepage Journal

    I am sure PJ would appreciate the help.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Kill himself

  • Shouldn't a lawyer already have the resources to find any area of law he want to practice in? Like most professionals those guys should have good network of people. Why sink to asking people who typically aren't in the area of law?
    • by seebs ( 15766 )

      Most professionals don't start out with a good network of people. Looking for ideas that other people have is as good a way as any to start, and possibly a better one if you want to think outside the box a bit.

      • Most professionals don't start out with a good network of people.

        I would beg to differ, when I graduated EE I had already had an established network, mostly people who were working in the field.

  • There is one area where prosecuting GPL violations is, at present, completely ineffective, and it's across the non-PRC / PRC international barrier. As I understand it, the rules are that it is necessary to either be a Chinese National or have a Chinese Company in order to prosecute Copyright Violation. However, i have heard that there is a Law Firm in Bristol who manage to successfully prosecute Copyright and other violations in China.

    It would be extremely useful for someone to help the Software Freedom L

  • Even if you're not eligible for joining their team as a lawyer (which isn't necessarily a given), you can still volunteer or at least network with them. []

  • There are dozens of organisations around the world who use the Internet to ensure Free Access to Law (Google '+LII +"Montreal Declaration"' for more about the movement). Many of these Legal Information Institutes require the assistance of legal experts in selecting, vetting and editing their online materials. There are new ones starting up right now in Western Africa, for example.

    Access to online legal materials is a fundamentally important way to ensure rule of law and to help level the playing field betw

  • sorry i didn't notice that the question was "what can i do for open source" and the first thing your friend can do is read rms essays on why that should be "free software" (more accurately "software libre" in french). the difference really does matter: anyone - even microsoft - can claim that "access to source code is open" (for $USD 1m, and if you use it in any projects or products, then they will sue the f88* out of you. but it's STILL an "open source" license, because the source code is "open", right?)

  • Maybe getting in touch with our fellow slashdotter NewYorkCountryLawyer (Ray Beckerman []) could be a good idea?
  • Pitch in with PJ? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Dammital ( 220641 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @06:08PM (#34715334)
    Groklaw [] does a lot of good, too.
  • Wow. What projects couldn't use a lawyer. Liability, patents, license (GPL etc) violations, legal documentation, etc etc.

    I could think of plenty of FOSS that probably could use a bit of legal assistance. Heck, how about offering a cheap legal advice session - or maybe a free seminar - every now and then, for up-and-coming programmers on FOSS projects?

  • The EFF provides all sorts of legal services to deserving projects. I thing volunteering tor them would be a fantastic use of time.
  • by holophrastic ( 221104 ) on Thursday December 30, 2010 @06:24PM (#34715526)

    As a programmer/developer, I'm used to libraries of code and snippets, and cross-integrating and documentation. But when it comes time for me to write contracts for projects with clients and such, I get to start from scratch, every time. GPL and the like exist for code use, but that's not business related.

    I've always wanted the equivalent of GPL for business. Where I can have a contract between my business and my client that also has a 3 to 5 character letterism common enough to be familiar to non-computer-oriented clients. It would really solve the whole negotiating a contract challenge of any large project.

    I imagine a set for each industry (software, grocery, marketing, etc), a subset for each type of project (software, service, product, etc), a subset for each bias (favouring the client, favouring the provider, mutually neutral, etc), a few peripheral features (royalties, bonuses, minimums, etc), et cetera.

    It's not open-source-computer-code, it's open-source-legal-contracts.

    The big advantage being that parties using such contracts don't need to read everything thoroughly for eight weeks with their lawyers, because those lawyers would quickly become familiar with these things, and these things would be backed by the international association for open legal contracts -- or perhaps one with a more legible letterism.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ZekeV ( 1968214 )
      Sounds a lot like a project I'm currently developing with a group of lawyers -- a curated contract forms library based on open source principles. [] We could definitely use additional input from people with a hacker's perspective.
    • It would really solve the whole negotiating a contract challenge of any large project.

      While it's a neat-o concept, my opinion as a lawyer who has worked in software/copyright licenses before, having a "GPL" for "large [business] projects" is most likely a spectacularly terrible idea.

      Well, as a lawyer, I'd love to be asked to work on any litigation arising out of such a deal, as I would make a mint off the years of subsequent court battles. With large projects, you ought to draft a new contract every time be

      • And that's just it. I'd want the contracts to undergo the same level of debugging that code would undergo -- you would make a mint off of subsequent court battles. But eventually, over the course of many years, those battles would act as very strong precendent -- same contract, same battle, same outcome.

        You'd then make a mint off of recommending the right combination of contract clauses. It'd take you very little time, very little effort, and you'd have something that no other scenario affords -- the abi

        • You'd then make a mint off of recommending the right combination of contract clauses.

          There is already boilerplate out there. You can buy a book like [] and run with it. It comes with forms you can use. In fact, this is what most lawyers do, even at the biggest law firms in the world. They go with language that has been litigated in court already, and change a bit to glue the cla

          • That's the other side. Boilerplate is one-way, I want two-way. I want the lawyer on the other side to say "oh yeah, OBC v6, internet software v8, with clauses 72 and 64, yeah it's fine".

            You can't get that with boilerplate, because they aren't standard, well known, and tested.

            The issue is always the same. After a few months of communication back and forth, and a few thousand dollars on each side, the actual project has yet to begin.

            So after spending 10% on the contract, the project may never actually go a

            • You can't get that with boilerplate, because they aren't standard, well known, and tested.

              No, it's pretty much definitional. "Boilerplate" is standard language everyone uses. It's practically guaranteed that it has become boilerplate because it is standard, well-known, and tested in court.

              See if your local bar association provides free Westlaw access in their offices. If they do, you should know you can find a lot of good contract language on Westlaw that has been tested. I think they even have a forms data

              • Honestly, none of that sounds any easier than just writing one of my own from scratch. I type quickly.

                I'd just love to find a method that has the other side's lawyer able to accept the entire contract within an hour.

                • I'd just love to find a method that has the other side's lawyer able to accept the entire contract within an hour.

                  You're never going to find a competent lawyer willing to approve a $30K contract in an hour. I think that fact alone would likely be grounds for a finding of malpractice if the contract ended up screwing over his client.

                  This scenario would really play out in under an hour if the other client forewent (what is the past tense of "forego"?) legal representation itself.

                  But yeah, I hear you. My profe

                  • Really? If you were presented with a contract certified by the International Open Business Contract Association of Earth, having downloaded it from them directly, and run it through your office's validation tool, each of which says it's version 6.3 of the standard internet software application small business contract level 4e, with optional clauses 6f and 9d, and a three-word change to section 7.1 which now allows for the destruction of confidential materials in place of their safe return...

                    You've read eve

            • Also, if you live near an area with a law school, many have law schools with great libraries that stock form books.

  • your "friend". I think we all know who the real lawyer is here :D
  • sic Ellison of Oracle and Darl McBride of Hell on each other.

    open source, and mankind, can only benefit with those two alleycats tied tail to tail and tossed over a high-tension power line, to shred each other.

  • I have a friend who was all set to become an IP lawyer, but then they found out her parents were married.
    I was shopping in New York last week, it was so cold I saw a lawyer with her hands in her own pockets.

  • The Free Software Foundation can use lawyers to help answer questions from non-lawyers about the General Public License (GPL). The GPL is one of the most widely used free/open software licenses. See here for more information: []

    The relevant snippet from the web site:

    Are you a law geek?

    * Be a Licensing Volunteer. Help us answer the many questions we receive every day at the FSF regarding the use and abuse of free software licenses. If you are interested, write to and tell us a bit about your background, both legal and with the free software community, if you are interested. Please also run through the GPL quiz and let us know how you do.

    As an aside, if you are *neither* a lawyer nor a programmer and you're still interested in supporting open source projects, there are lots of ways to get involved. This includes those with an interest in art, lingui

  • Make a crapload of money working as a lawyer, then donate some of it to your favourite open source project.

  • 1) Volunteer for the EFF
    2) Volunteer to help me

    I want to start a site that rates end user license agreements. The site would archive agreements, sent in by volunteers so that people could look-up the agreements before purchasing the software, or see what they are supposedly bound by after the fact. It would provide an English summary of each license, and rate them on several key criterial. Ex: Ability to reverse engineer, etc. I think it could also feature a jerky license-of-the-week section that would

  • This past semester I interned at the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta [] which is modeled after the Pro Bono Partnership [] that covers New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The idea behind these groups is to provide transactional attorneys an opportunity to provide free legal services to 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. The services provided vary widely and the attorneys are always presented with a wide variety of clients as well as issues. Transactional attorneys don't often have an easy way to provide pro b
  • by jonwil ( 467024 ) on Friday December 31, 2010 @01:31AM (#34719146)

    The lawyer friend could write some stuff that spells out the legal requirements for companies when it comes to the GPL and other open source licences in different situations as well as what to do to prevent the situation where a company cant comply with the GPL without violating an NDA with a hardware vendor and other related open source licence complience issues.

    Also related to this would be documentation on how copyright holders can pursue GPL violations and particularly stuff that can be used to target repeat offenders who consistantly violate the GPL with every device they sell and only release the source code weeks or months after the device is released *cough*HTC*cough*

  • Law offices use a lot of software. Using open source in the office whenever it meets your needs, then mentioning you use and why you use it when talking to other lawyers, can go a long way to promoting open source, and the more popular open source software gets within the legal profession, the more people there will be who both have the requisite legal skills to help out and desire to do so. Also, a lot of lawyers end up as legislators or other government officials with the power to influence software pur
  • *TaDum* *Crash* *Thud*

    Thank you, thank you, I'm here all week.
    Try the fish.

  • Yes, Groklaw ( [] ) is probably the place where an interested lawyer can (a) probably have the most impact per hour spent, (b) keep control of the amount of time this sideline is going to cost him, and (cb) make himself visible to a network of lawyers who are sympathetic to Open Source and who may want to make his acquaintance.

    Then there is the Free Software Foundation ( [] ) with whom is associated Eben Moglen ( http://en.wikipedia.o []

  • I did and it was the best career move I ever made. My undergraduate degree was in a non-tech area. I spent the first 2 years of my practice at an international law firm doing banking and finance law. When I couldn't take it anymore I went back to school to get a formal education in Computer Science. At the end of the program, I had multiple offers to be an IP lawyer.

    OSS is so pervasive now that every single company must take it into account when doing any type of software project. Companies that can

Never worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it's supposed to do. -- R. A. Heinlein