Saturday, December 27, 2008

Intellectual Property and Open Source

A few months ago, I received a complementary copy of Van Lindberg's new O'Reilly book Intellectual Property and Open Source: A Practical Guide to Protecting Code and the first thing that happened at home when the book was unwrapped was three of us began arguing over who got to read it first.

This may seem like an odd thing to happen for what one could easily assume was a dry and less than interesting topic. However, at the time I was strongly considering the possibility of beginning a non-tech-industry startup built with both open source and proprietary code. The discussions with the potential founders of the startup had been very vigorous and exciting, but the big questions that remained revolved around patents, protecting IP, and providing protection against big business while still offering powerful, free code for use by individuals/private consumers. If you've read the book or even seen the table of contents, you can see why everyone wanted to be the first to read it and learn from the insights provided between its covers.

Instead of jumping into another startup, I ended up joining Canonical; this has kept me both very busy and exceptionally happy. The holiday break has provided an opportunity to finish reading the book, and it has been a delight. I have friends working on startups that depend upon exciting code to power some or all of the business models for their visions, and reading this book should be on their shelves, close at hand. Even if you're not involved directly with open source and intellectual property, this book is an excellent read.

Intellectual Property and Open Source accomplishes a difficult goal of sharing dense information while making the subject matter engaging. This is done through examples, thought experiments, and well developed analogies. Van does an excellent job of igniting a powerful curiosity on the part of the reader while providing rewards for this in the lucid explanations of related laws and perspectives. I am resisting the urge to turn this post into a long series of quotes, but at the very least I want to mention a few little "spoilers" ;-)

The book starts off with an excellent foundation, giving an overview of the origins of intellectual property from an economic and legal perspective. This was particularly useful for me, as I have no background in this field. Van Lindberg does a really great job of expressing some of the widely held (and diverse) views of IP in the open source community.

The book then launches the reader into an array of well organized chapters on patents, the patent system, trademarks, copyright, trade secrets and licenses. Every open source developer should read chapter 10 on choosing an open source license (the opening dialog had me laughing out loud, a hilarious parody of news groups and IRC arguments as well as a nod to Princess Bride). There's also a chapter dedicated to patches and their relationships to copyright; another on reverse engineering; and the final one provides information and advice on establishing non-profits for open source projects -- the author even gives mention to our friends at the Software Freedom Conservancy (the umbrella non-profit for the Twisted Software Foundation).

In all honesty, I can't rave enough about this book. I've re-read parts of it just because I enjoyed the clarity of the explanations so much. Law is a twisty maze of easily confused subtleties to those who have not been trained in its dark arts. Through explicit language and examples, the author guides us past pitfalls of misunderstanding and brings us directly to all the major points.

If you are an Amazon shopper, you may want to act quickly: last I checked, there were only two copies left.



Bill Karwin said...

You might also like some of Zak Greant's stuff. Here's an interview with Zak:

That page also has links to Zak's blog and his "Age of Literate Machines" talk.

mray said...

Thanks for the review, moved it up to the top of my "to-read" stack.


Duncan McGreggor said...

Hey Matt, that's cool! I've already marked several places in the book that I'll be re-reading frequently... for inspiration on projects :-)