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Freedom loving lawyers prime primer on open source code

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Aaron Williamson and Matt Norwood presented a thorough analysis of reverse engineering and clean-room development - a remarkably dry run through a seemingly fascinating topic. "Reverse engineering" carries a magical allure to it, a mystique that’s destroyed by a blow-by-blow breakdown of the best practices procedure behind the technique and its legal ramifications.

“When Sega’s code was reverse engineered so that someone could build game cartridges that competed with Sega’s cartridges, the courts decided that if you were reverse-engineering to get to the idea within the cartridge, than the engineering was fair use,” Williamson pointed out. The now ubiquitous end-user license agreement prevent simple reverse engineering with blanket provisions - a fact iPhone hackers would be wise to take note of.

To avoid those legal pitfalls, hackers can buy pre-activated iPhones on eBay, thus avoiding the EULA, or follow the procedure Williams outlined for proper reverse engineering: First, there are developers in the clean room, people with no prior access to the code in question and who won’t have access to the rest of the team. For them, isolation is key.

As Norwood joked, “The first rule of clean room is you do not talk about clean room. Less obvious is the second rule of clean room, which is you do not talk about clean room.”

The other two groups are the specification team, people who have access to the potentially infringing code that the project aims to replace, and the liaison, who works between the other teams and ensures their separation.

Successful reverse engineering projects are usually planned out in advance and executed according to these stringent guidelines. But often, open source developers don’t think about these issues until it’s too late.

Eben Moglen, chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, wrapped up the evening with a passionate restatement of the Center’s goals. He’s excited about the new office that should open in New Delhi next year and support for the millions of open source coders he envisions coming out of the subcontinent in the immediate future.

Moglen sees it as his mission to defend the world’s free software programmers. As he put it, “the kid’s gotta code . . . and he can’t defend himself against the man who says, 'you’ve gotta pay me for my idea which you just had.'” ®

The essential guide to IT transformation

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