Thursday, August 14, 2008

Court ruling strengthens legal basis for open source

A ruling by a federal appeals court yesterday in a copyright case (Jacobsen v. Katzer) sets an important precedent for the enforceability of open source licenses.

The Wall Street Journal reports:
The case centers around free software used in model trains that Robert Jacobsen, a model-train enthusiast, made available online. Mr. Jacobsen alleged that Matthew Katzer, and Mr. Katzer's company, used the software to develop commercial software products for model trains without following the terms of the software's license. Mr. Jacobsen alleged that Mr. Katzer had infringed copyright.
A lower court had ruled that the license in question was "intentionally broad" and therefore could not be used as the basis for copyright infringement. The U.S. Court of Appeals, however, overruled the lower court and "determined that the terms of the Artistic License are enforceable copyright conditions" (quoting the court's opinion).

Jeff Neuburger in the New Media and Technology Law Blog comments (hat tip: Dan Slater, WSJ):
There are so few judicial opinions dealing with open source licenses that any single one is of great interest, but the pro-open source ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Jacobsen v. Katzer, No. 2008-1001 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 13, 2008) easily goes to the top of the charts of this small category. This is a highly significant opinion that will greatly bolster the efforts of the open source community to control the use of open source software according to the terms set out in open source licenses.
Open source software continues to be an exciting front for innovation in IT infrastructure and business applications. But some corporate executives have been reluctant to embrace open source software because of a perceived threats of legal liability. Although Jacobsen v. Katzer does not address the sorts of legal issues that most corporate executives are concerned about (e.g. misappropriation of intellectual property), this ruling does begin to build a legal foundation for open source. Open source developers have a right to limit how their work is used to ensure that it remains "open."

The court's full ruling is online.

Update, Oct. 4, 2008: Bruce Perens, creator of the Open Source Definition, has a long article in Datamation, analyzing the case. In addition, the voluminous set of court documents is posted on Sourceforge.

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