SCL Event Report: South West Group Launch

October 19, 2015

The revival of the South West Group got off to a great start with a re-launch event in Bristol.

The evening started with a short discussion about the general appetite for reforming the group and logistical questions and preferences, for example, in which city should most events be held and at what time of day. Potential future topics were also suggested by the Chair. There followed a series of talks about Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) given by Neil Brown, who is a senior telecoms and technology lawyer at a global communications company and a director of the United Kingdom Telecommunications Academy, and Katie Osborne and Andrew Katz, both of Moorcrofts LLP.

First up was Katie Osborne who gave a good introduction to Open Source Software (OSS) – its history and how and where it is used. Katie explained the differences between the two main categories of OSS licensing models: Apache and GPL – Apache being very wide and GPL much more restrictive due to the risk of contamination. She also discussed modification and distribution of code under each model.  Katie then looked at key considerations for lawyers, including restrictions and points to bear in mind when advising on OSS (depending on whether the software is just going to be used or developed by a client).  She also touched on points to bear in mind in relation to drafting, for example, the need for indemnities and warranties. 

Next to present was Neil Brown who focussed on the use of FOSS in business.  He stressed that there is almost no business in existence that doesn’t use some form of FOSS somewhere.  Neil began with an analysis of three themes:

1) FOSS strategy and policy

2) Licensing own code under FOSS

3) Using third party FOSS.

As part of this Neil discussed the importance of developing a FOSS strategy to capture what the business wants to achieve by using FOSS. To find this out, it is more helpful to add to the statement: “We use FOSS to” rather than “We use FOSS because“.  Such statement can then be underpinned with an operational policy. Neil then set out the five things that should be included in a FOSS policy:

1)     Use of FOSS in products: at a basic level a business should have a list of licences it is happy to use and a list it is not happy to use

2)     Use of FOSS elsewhere than in products/services: this could include servers or browsers used by employees, for example, FireFox

3)     FOSS in the inbound supply chain: How does a business know what its licensing obligations are?

4)     Releasing code as FOSS

5)     Handling exceptions: who has authority in the business to grant an exception? It is important to understand the legal and technical obligations. 

Neil then looked at why a business might want to choose a FOSS licence for its own software. He explored the idealism that software should be free and the reasons and advantages in taking such an approach. These could include building a community (eg if there is no resource in the business to take the software forward or if there is a desire to make the software bigger and better by involving other people).  Another advantage might be to undercut a rival’s investment.  Using FOSS might also be a more desirable sales pitch, for example, in relation to selling patches.

Neil concluded by looking at when a business might use third-party FOSS. A key factor would be to enable it to focus its spending on differentiation at the lowest cost. Taking a sensible approach can make a real difference to the bottom line of a business.

The final speaker was Andrew Katz who spoke about “Other Opens”.  As FOSS is so successful, Andrew considered the effect it can have in different areas. For example, the existence of Open Hardware, Open Standards and Open Education to name a few.

Andrew then explained the distinction between OSS and Free software: the former being more business friendly and the latter being much more ideological (Apache vs GPL). Further detail was provided about Open Standards. What is particularly important about Open Standards is that as many people as possible are able to participate in their creation and review. Likewise, Open Education, such as the Open University is all about maximising participation. Open Access Journals should be available for use rather than alteration, as doing so would reduce their value. Open Government means different things to different people, for example data for MPs’ expenses and budgets. Again, such data should not be changed.  

There was then an interesting explanation of Open Hardware; as part of this, Andrew mentioned some interesting projects such as the Hyrban, hydrogen fuel-cell urban car, the Protei marine drone (used for litter collection from the ocean) and the Open relief aerial drone, an idea which was developed at low cost after the Fukushima disaster in Japan to help to identify survivors of disasters in remote locations. Other Open Hardware projects were then discussed such as networked sensors and thermostatic radiator valves.  Andrew’s talk concluded with a discussion about the Creative Commons suite of licences and their use, for example, within Wikipedia which has lots of content that is covered by Creative Commons.

Following the talks, there was an interesting Q&A session which broadened the themes discussed by the speakers.

This was a sell-out event that was very well received. To build on its success a further event for the South West Group is being planned for early 2016. More details will follow soon.

Sarah Hill is a Senior Associate at RPC.