A big legal victory for open source

A small legal victory was won by an open source developer that will have lasting effects on the entire open source development community. Jack Wallen explains.

Many of you may not realize it, but a large victory for open source software was won February 19, 2010. The case, at first blush, seemed very simple. A software developer (and member of the Java Model Railroad Interface Project), Robert Jacobson, had created a piece of software released under the GPL that the defendant (Matthew Katzer - owner of a proprietary model train controlling software KAMIND) ripped off. Not only did the defendant rip off the code, he removed all mention of authorship for the original code and stripped away the copyright notice. Of course the removal of the copyright was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act...so legal precedent was present.

The original patent claim Katzer made against Jacobson was in 2004. The case dragged on quite some time (for all the details you can visit the Wikipedia entry for Jacobson v. Katzer). And although this was a big  win for Jacboson, the long-term effects for F/OSS could be bigger. Why? Precedent.

Our court system runs on precedent. A precedent is a prior legal case that a court uses as a reference when deciding on a current case. One of the biggest issues facing open source software was that there was no precedent to fall back on. Now there is. Now the open source licensing model stands up in a court of law and is legally entitled to copyright protection.

What this does, IMHO, is that it gives businesses and developers a security they didn't have prior to the verdict. And because this case eventually went to U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the ruling was binding in all district courts underneath the U.S. FCCA.

What started as a small victory for a model railroad aficionado and developer became a huge victory for an entire community of developers. How? The GPL is valid in a court of law. You can develop your software now, release it under the GPL, and know the U.S. Federal Court has your back. This small victory will ensure big companies no longer pilfer various GPL codes, place them into their own code, and get away with the crime. Now they will pay.

Although I hope this doesn't turn into a coup, with open source developers scrambling through other codes to try to find violations, I am thrilled the open source community can now continue their work with actual legal protection waiting for them in the wings. This ruling has been a long time coming. This victory is deserving. Thank you Robert Jacobson for fighting for your rights and for the rights of open source developers across the globe.

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....