Copyright wrongs inspire law seminars

Inadequate contracts between software developers and customers - made more complicated by growing dependence on open source software - is prompting the Computer Society (NZCS) to raise awareness of the issue.

Inadequate contracts between software developers and customers — made more complicated by growing dependence on open source software — is prompting the Computer Society (NZCS) to raise awareness of the issue.

NZCS fellow and Auckland developer Ian Mitchell says he’s trying to get a series of seminars off the ground at which legal issues relevant to developers will be aired.

Mitchell says his own experience of litigation between developers and their customers is spurring him to action.

“Twice in the past 18 months I’ve been involved in long copyright cases as an expert witness.” Mitchell says such cases spring from poorly written contracts.

“One problem for small software houses is that they might be up against large law firms; they can often end up being bullied.”

According to lawyer Averill Parkinson, an associate in Auckland firm IT Law, developers often set out on a project without any contract in place.

“By default the person who pays for the work then owns it. That means the developer loses ownership of any new intellectual property.” IT Law is in discussion with Mitchell about possible involvement in the seminar series.

A recipe for further copyright confusion comes from the general public licence (GPL), which sets the rules for open source software distribution. This was an issue highlighted by Microsoft at an NZCS open source event in Auckland this month.

Microsoft OEM manager Brett Roberts, one of a number of Microsoft staff in the audience, says open source proponents tend towards a “sweetness and light” interpretation of the GPL, whereas Microsoft’s battle-hardened legal approach to the issue sees pitfalls for open source developers.

At issue is whether a customer who has had software developed based on open source code is then obliged by the GPL to make that software publicly available. One interpretation of the GPL is that if the software is developed in-house, there is no obligation to distribute it publicly. However, if the software is written by a contractor, then distributed to the customer, the GPL requires the commissioned software to be made open source.

Peter Harrison, the speaker at the NZCS event and organiser of the New Zealand Open Source Society, which he plans to incorporate next month, says such concerns needn’t frighten customers off using open source-based software. He says they need to be pragmatic about using open source code; its cheapness might make it suitable for a non-core application, while proprietary software could be appropriate for a central system containing valuable intellectual property.

IT Law’s Parkinson says where the GPL gives customers a distinct benefit is in clearly giving them the right to maintain their open source-based systems, a crucial issue if the relationship with the developer breaks down.

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