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FLOSSing for Good Legal Hygiene

Stories from the Trenches

Conference: FOSDEM, Legal & Policy Issues DevRoom
Location: Brussels, Belgium
Slides: PDF

Description: The legal structures of free software projects go through phases of popularity reminiscent of fashion trends. The early days of free software were decentralized and individualistic, partially inspired by the “free culture” movements of the ‘60s. Over time, centralization and incorporated non-profit organizations grew popular, parallel with a period of time where FLOSS was struggling for recognition as a viable alternative to proprietary solutions. As FLOSS crested that wave, and won the recognition of the business world, people began to recognize an over-proliferation of special-purpose foundations, and the conservancies (foundations that host multiple independent projects) came to the fore. In the past year we’ve seen a movement back toward decentralized individualism, questioning the need of any formal legal structures. The fact of the matter is that free software and international law work just fine for a whole gamut of legal structures, from the lone individual hacker to the largest of incorporated entities. It’s a free choice for each project. The important thing is for every project to think through their legal strategy. Not just the “What?” (-license? -contribution policy? -legal documentation?) but “Why?” (-pick option X over option Y? -are we doing this? -do we care?) and “How?” (-can we make this work for us? -will this affect our users and developers?).


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons.
– George Santayana, The Life of Reason Vol. 1, “Reason in Common Sense” (1905)