The biggest legal danger for open source?

Patents or copyright?

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I grew up near a river.

Not a particularly deep or wide river, but due to the geographic history of the Midwest, a river with a bottom full of massive pits and dips, dug out by glaciers and the debris they shoved around this part of the world 15,000 years ago. Because of these formations, this particular river is rather dangerous to be in for swimmers--at any point, an undercurrent can drag you under the surface, to be trapped in whatever pit or dead tree lies beneath.

It looks calm on the surface, placid even. But it is not.

There is an undercurrent of legal issues troubling the open source world these days. While things are going great in some aspects--cloud, mobile, server--there is a definite potential for trouble from litigious attacks on any of the successful technologies open source has helped create.

If this sounds like fear, uncertainty, and doubt, it is assurdedly not. But if there's a bear in your house, you can't just ignore it and hope it will go away. You call animal control.

FUD is the obvious intention of those who have instigated the various legal troubles on open source practitioners. Fear specifically: ramp it up to intimidation, and you've got a potential licensing revenue channel on your hands.

Such troubles, from the scores of software patents that are used to "protect" intellectual property, are obvious.

But no less troublesome, I believe, is the issue of copyright and copyright assignments.

Lately, commercial vendors in open source space have caught flak for the nature of the copyright assignments used when developers contribute code to a project the vendor manages.

Copyright assignments basically work like this: I, a hypothetical developer, create some semi-brilliant code and want to contribute it to Project X, which is overseen and used by Company X. Company X, recognizing the semi-brilliance of my code, wants to use it in their latest distribution, so they ask me to sign away the copyrights of my code over to them. This is so that when they release my code as part of the greater whole distribution, they can have full legal control over the code--even though they will still work with me and give me credit.

Under most circumstances, this seems rather fair. After all, I want my code to be in Distro X, and it makes sense that Company X doesn't want the nightmare of working with a bazillion different copyrights.

But sometimes copyright assignment can be confusingly Machievllian, even in open source land.

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