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A dramatic example where lawyers saying no may have hurt a company

Some observers believe Microsoft was wrong footed on open source. Was it the nay-saying of lawyers?

“One of the reasons Microsoft seemed so ill-informed about open source was that its lawyers had forbidden its engineers from working with it. The license that Linus and similar open source software uses, known as the GPL (general public license), requires that every “derivative work” of open-source software also be open source. The lawyers decided that this made it a virus: Any Microsoft programmer who touched it might be at risk of infecting anything else he or she worked on, with the possibility that one mistake could even accidentally open-source Windows.”

This passage, from Chris Anderson, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion 2009) at 110, wonderfully captures the perversion of risk aversion some lawyers exhibit. The quote is not clear whether the lawyers who banned work at Microsoft on open-source software were outside lawyers or inside lawyers, but either way the legal department at least permitted the block (See my post of Aug. 24, 2008: lawyers and risk averse behavior with 11 references.).

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