Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Victory in court for open source software

My friend Jeff Gordon, an expert on software licensing, alerted me to an important decision that came down today, greatly strengthening the legal basis for open source software licenses. The case, which I've been following for some time, was filed by one Robert Jacobson, who manages an open source project for model railroad enthusiasts, claiming copyright infringement for use of his code in a competing product.

I first wrote about this case in 2008, when a lower court 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."

Jeff's post is here, summarizing the latest ruling. He writes that "the end result is a huge win for open source developers as a result of three key findings by the District Court:"
  1. Violation of an open source software license constitutes copyright infringement, not just breach of contract (this was first upheld by the Federal Appeals Court in 2008 in this case).
  2. Use of open source code without attribution is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
  3. These violations entitle the Plaintiff (Jacobson) to monetary damages – which, as they’re based on violations of copyright law, are potentially much more substantial than those which may have been limited by contract law.
Jeff helpfully points to a post on ConsortiumInfo.org that provides much more detail on the ruling. There's also a 2008 article from PC Magazine that gives more background on the facts of the case.

My take
For open source enterprise applications to compete successfully with proprietary software vendors they need investors to fund their efforts. But potential investors need the assurance that the work they fund will be protected from IP theft. This case gives real teeth for enforcement of open source license terms and conditions, which should encourage investors to be more willing to fund such efforts.

Related posts
Court ruling strengthens legal basis for open source

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