Liability protection project - call for participants

Anthony Towns aj at
Tue May 15 08:11:03 UTC 2007

On Mon, May 14, 2007 at 03:51:40PM -0700, Bruce Perens wrote:
> A long time ago we planned for SPI to protect Debian developers from 
> liability connected with their development of Free Software. [...]

(By and large, Bruce is speaking for himself here, and possibly some
of the other founders of SPI; I don't think this has been particularly
widely considered by Debian developers at large)

> Some of us have homes, and other property that we would rather not place 
> at risk of any lawsuit connected with our Free Software activities. The 
> way to do that is to act as a volunteer on the behalf of a non-profit 
> corporation, with the corporation assuming your liability. [...]

> There is a downside. If you work on behalf of such an entity, you would 
> have to agree to act at their direction, which means acting responsbily 
> on their behalf, by not doing stupid stuff that obviously increases the 
> corporation's risk of being sued. This doesn't really have to do with 
> practical software, but with what some consider freedom-of-speech issues 
> like obscentity or hate speech. For that reason, this would be strictly 
> opt-in. It would not be directly associated with SPI or Debian, because 
> we could never get all of the DDs to agree about this, and because SPI 
> owns property that we do not want to expose to liability. Copyrights of 
> software produced would be assigned to a non-profit like FSF or SPI*

Note that in the past Debian developers have had concerns with "acting
at the direction" of others -- such as being told that software like
"bitchx", "satan", "mencal" or "hot-babe" aren't appropriate to package
as part of Debian for various reasons; or having board members (such as
SPI's or the FSF's) dictating development decisions to people working
on the code, or changing licenses on them or otherwise becoming more
"involved" than you might have expected.

That said, giving up a little autonomy in exchange for potentially a
lot of financial security is an entirely sensible tradeoff to consider,
and it makes a lot of sense to do that before people start getting
sued individually.

It might be possible to do something like have SPI get copyright
assignment for works in return for providing the authors with a vote (or
a voice) on how they handle that copyright in future, which might ease
the concerns about handing over control and could even be argued to be a
"work for hire" arrangement making it a bit easier to deal with legally.

> I am asking for current free software authors in the United States who 
> would be interested in being protected from liability, and would join me 
> in a request to the Software Freedom Law Center to assist us by creating 
> such an entity. If you would like to do that, please reply to me at 
> bruce at . Further discussion will be carried out separately 
> from SPI and Debian lists.

I think it would be reasonable for SPI to recommend its members seriously
consider such an arrangement (presuming it's possible, pending legal
advice, etc), and I'd hope such discussion would take place on SPI and
Debian lists...


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