What is considered off-site usage?

John Cowan cowan at ccil.org
Thu Mar 13 01:08:50 UTC 2008

Matthew Flaschen scripsit:

> First, IANAL and TINLA.  No one on this list is going to give you legal 
> advice specific to your situation.

True.  However, Eric Raymond gave the world these words of wisdom on
the subject:

Having gone through all this legal verbiage, the expected thing for us
to do at this point is to utter a somber disclaimer to the effect that
we are not lawyers, and that if you have any doubts about the legality of
something you want to do with open-source software, you should immediately
consult a lawyer.

With all due respect to the legal profession, this would be fearful
nonsense. The language of these licenses is as clear as legalese gets
-- they were written to be clear -- and should not be at all hard to
understand if you read it carefully. The lawyers and courts are actually
more confused than you are. The law of software rights is murky, and
case law on open-source licenses is (as of mid-2003) nonexistent; no
one has ever been sued under them.  [No longer quite true.]

This means a lawyer is unlikely to have a significantly better insight
than a careful lay reader. But lawyers are professionally paranoid about
anything they don't understand. So if you ask one, he is rather likely
to tell you that you shouldn't go anywhere near open-source software,
despite the fact that he probably doesn't understand the technical
aspects or the author's intentions anywhere near as well as you do.

Finally, the people who put their work under open-source licenses are
generally not mega-corporations attended by schools of lawyers looking
for blood in the water; they're individuals or volunteer groups who
mainly want to give their software away. The few exceptions (that
is, large companies both issuing under open-source licenses and with
money to hire lawyers) have a stake in open source and don't want to
antagonize the developer community that produces it by stirring up legal
trouble. Therefore, your odds of getting hauled into court on an innocent
technical violation are probably lower than your chances of being struck
by lightning in the next week.

This isn't to say you should treat these licenses as jokes. That would be
disrespectful of the creativity and sweat that went into the software, and
you wouldn't enjoy being the first litigation target of an enraged author
no matter how the lawsuit came out. But in the absence of definitive case
law, a visible good-faith effort to meet the author's intentions is 99%
of what you can do; the additional 1% of protection you might (or might
not) get by consulting a lawyer is unlikely to make a difference.

Samuel Johnson on playing the violin:           John Cowan
"Difficult do you call it, Sir?                 cowan at ccil.org
 I wish it were impossible."                    http://www.ccil.org/~cowan

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