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US Federal Judge Affirms Key FOSS Developer Rights

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A crucial battle over the legal provisions for free and open source software in the US has finally ended today.  Following a recent ruling by a US Federal District Court judge in favor of several key FOSS developer rights, a settlement was reached.  The settlement documents are now available to the public.

The landmark case of Jacobsen v. Katzer was fought over, of all things, a piece of model railroad software.  The plaintiff was Robert Jacobsen, a member of the Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) project - a free and open source software project.  The defendant was Matthew Katzer, the owner of KAM Industries, a proprietary vendor of model train software.  The lawsuit began when Katzer integrated JMRI code written by Jacobsen into KAM Industries' software.  Katzer deleted copyright notices in the software during that process.  

The most important issue at stake in this case was whether a developer of free software could collect damages for copyright infringement.  If a free open source project could not collect damages for copyright infringement, then there would be nothing stopping other developers from reusing FOSS software in violation of the license terms.  In the case of JMRI, this meant that outside developers were obligated to 'give back' any code changes to the JMRI open source community.  The license also states that accreditation must be given to JMRI by anyone who uses the code.  

The case of Jacobsen v. Katzer would be the first of its kind in the US, and it would set a precedent for future open source cases.  After several years of legal maneuverings, a summary judgement by a Federal District court judge found favor with Jacobsen's case on three accounts.  First, the code was original enough for copyright protection, so Jacobsen was then entitled to copyright claims.  Second, the court found that even though the JMRI software was available for free, there was evidence of monetary value in the work contributed to the project.  This gave Jacobsen a claim to monetary damages.  Third, the court ruled that the removal of copyright and ownership data was a  violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

After the ruling, Katzer decided to settle, and although the judge did not grant Jacobsen's request for an injunction, Katzer and Jacobsen's lawyers agreed on one in the settlement.  With the appeals circuit having been completely exhausted in this case, the court's decision is now binding in their circuit; the California circuit.  Although federal courts in other US circuits are not bound to this decision, the California circuit is well respected and influential.  The results of the Jacobsen v. Katzer case could eventually become the law of the land.  That should give some assurance that the contributions of the open source community will not be unfairly exploited, and it's all thanks to the dedication of Robert Jacobsen, a model train buff who reaffirmed his rights, and the rights of the open source community. 


Jennifer O'neill replied on Sun, 2010/04/04 - 9:49pm

I found your article while researching for my own (the impact of European court decisions on the enforcement of open source licensing in American courts), and just wanted to thank you for your thorough but tightly written summary. This is the best overview of Jacobsen I've seen and nicely addresses both the business and legal issues. Now I'm reading your other open source articles as well. :-) Thanks!

Mitch Pronschinske replied on Mon, 2010/04/05 - 10:50am in response to: Jennifer O'neill

You're very welcome!  :)

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