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Feature: Legal

Italian lawyers in love with open source

By Marco Fioretti on June 24, 2005 (8:00:00 AM)

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Most of the time, open source supporters think of lawyers as a crowd of hungry vultures, throwing patents and cease-and-desist letters at innocent hackers. However, in the province of Foggia, Southern Italy, two small groups of lawyers have turned themselves into open source evangelists.

What? Did hell just freeze over? No, it's just common sense. The long-term availability and privacy of all legal documents deserve the highest possible guarantees. Only non-proprietary file formats like OpenDocument, the default format in OpenOffice.org 2.0, will always be legally accessible with any software program. Proprietary software, if loaded with DRM functionality, may silently track file modification and exchanges and automatically report it to third parties. So much for attorney/client privilege.

For several months, two Gruppi di Lavoro - Open Source (GL-OS) -- that is, Open Source Workgroups -- one right in Foggia and another in the nearby town of Lucera, have been promoting the free sharing of IT knowledge among lawyers of the province, the philosophy of free and open source software (FOSS), and the diffusion of GNU/Linux systems. Practically speaking, they organize meetings and classes and distribute free software and related documentation. Their base is the Lawyers' Hall in the Palazzo di Giustizia (Tribunal) of Foggia, where a couple of computers were set up to showcase the potential of FOSS. Free support, especially for OpenOffice.org, is always available, and newbies can ask for a personal tutor. Last May the groups held a well-attended workshop on these issues. Satisfied participants received a CD-ROM with FOSS programs for a Windows desktop.

The GL-OS lawyers told me that many of their Microsoft-only colleagues would like the greater security and transparency guaranteed by open source. But as in other parts of the world it turns out to be hard to get lawyers to use FOSS. A lot of legal software and forms can be used only in a Microsoft environment. A project member said, "The discovery of open source makes you realize that the first great obstacle is the information technology subculture that is inoculated into people." In other words, non-technical obstacles remain the hardest to overcome.

GL-OS volunteers understand that lawyers, like almost everybody else in the world, see computers just as fancy typewriters: tools that have to solve job-related problems, not create new ones. In a law office, only 2-3% of what Linux can do is actually needed -- or, quoting again GL-OS lawyers, "You don't need a Ferrari because you must move at only 5 Km/H anyway." Consequently, GL-OS makes a point to work in a gradual and as painless as possible way. The computers in the Lawyers' Hall can boot either Windows XP or Mandrake 10.1. The Windows partition hosts only FOSS programs that a lawyer really needs and can use without problems: OpenOffice.org, Firefox, and Thunderbird. The first IT help many GL-OS visitors need is learning how folders and file managers can help to keep files organized, and that documents can be protected with cryptography. Only later does GL-OS introduce the FOSS philosophy.

Future plans

GL-OS is preparing to release Italian legal forms in OpenDocument format, and plans to offer custom CD-ROMs. The group is studying how to become official OOo Community Distributors. The to-do list also includes training classes (especially for OpenOffice.org) and conferences about FOSS and the forensic world. The longest-term goal is the utilization of FOSS to access both legal databases and the Processo Civile Telematico, the Italian project that is attempting to reduce as much as possible the amount of paper circulating in any given trial. Once it is implemented, all requests to the court and other documents will be written and directly filed in encrypted XML format, signed with smart cards.

When I asked what support GL-OS needs most urgently from the FOSS community, the answer came fast: please give us more simple manuals to install and configure applications! GL-OS would also like to hear from other lawyers and FOSS programmers to cooperate and exchange experiences.

Similar projects in Italy

GL-OS wasn't my first encounter with pro-open source Italian lawyers. During the Linux World Expo 2004 in Milan, Stefano Sutti, managing partner of the law firm Studio Legale Sutti explained how his company has been using open source software for years.

In addition, the Linux-Lex portal provides lots of information for lawyers interested in migrating to Linux. The Studio Legale Sutti commissioned and subsequently released under the GPL license its Web-based law office management application, called Knomos. Another project in the same space is eLawOffice, which has recently set up an online community to get feedback from end users. The basic functions of eLawOffice are usable, and most of the code could be reused by lawyers of other nations. The project's Links page points to more resources than I could list here.

Given the cross-border nature of the legal hassles surrounding FOSS today, building a network of lawyers interested in promoting it would be great, wouldn't it? Within the E.U., hackers and lawyers could cooperate to make sure FOSS plays the greatest possible role in a digitally interoperable Europe, and these (for now) isolated groups worldwide could explore how to work together through the Software Freedom Law Center.

Marco Fioretti is the author of The Family Guide to Digital Freedom and contributes regularly to Linux.com and other IT magazines.

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Italian lawyers in love with open source

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