David A. Wheeler's Blog

Mon, 22 Feb 2010

Free/Libre/Open Source Software’s big win: Jacobsen/JMRI v. Katzer

There’s been a major legal victory for Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS): Jacobsen v. Katzer. Articles like Bruce Perens’ “Inside Open Source’s Historic Victory” and A Big Victory for F/OSS: Jacobsen v. Katzer is Settled give many of the specifics; here is a quick summary.

Bob Jacobsen is a high-energy physicist who developed (as a hobby) the Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) Project. JMRI is a set of FLOSS Java tools for configuring and controlling model railroad trains. Matthew Katzer used loopholes in the law to patent ideas that Jacobsen and others had created and publicly discussed first, domain-squatted, tried to embarass Jacobsen to Jacbonsen’s employer, and used part of Jacobsen’s JMRI software in Katzer’s own product without complying with the JMRI license (by not providing the required credit). The JMRI has a short summary of this unpleasant fight, as well as lots of details and court papers.

What’s impressive was that Bob Jacobsen stuck through a very hard series of events. At first the court didn’t seem to understand FLOSS at all, and Jacobsen was handed some very unpleasant defeats. At one point, Jacobsen had to pay over $30,000 of his own money.

But Jacobsen persevered, and won critical rulings and a final settlement that is really a complete victory for him. In 2008 the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling and held that the terms of the Artistic License (a FLOSS license) are enforceable. The court said, “Open source licensing has become a widely used method of creative collaboration that serves to advance the arts and sciences in a manner and at a pace that few could have imagined just a few decades ago”. On February 18, 2010, the parties finally settled. Among other terms, Jacobsen has won $100,000, Katzer is forbidden to use Jacobsen’s software, and the two patents at issue have been disclaimed. What’s more, the rulings stemming from this case have created a precedent that FLOSS licenses are legally enforceable, eliminating a lot of uncertainty, and because there is a final settlement it is not possible to appeal the case. Strictly speaking, the precedents do not automatically apply everywhere in the U.S., but even where they do not strictly apply, they will still have a strong weight.

This result is critically important to FLOSS. If FLOSS developers could not enforce their licenses, the probable result would be that a lot of such software would never be written. The Amici Curiae brief by Creative Commons Corporation et al. and the Software Freedom Law Center Amicus Brief in Jacobsen v. Katzer both do a nice job explaining why getting this ruling right was so important.

So, my hat’s off to Bob Jacobsen. Through his persistence, he’s made the world better for all of us.

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