The model train business isn't exactly the font of software innovation. But a lawsuit over the rights to a hobbyist's code could be a huge boost for developers of open source programs. It could also make some businesses think again about using open source software.
As with many lawsuits, the net result of Jacobsen v. Katzer, as the case is formally called, is a mixed bag. The landmark ruling has the potential to provide needed protection against unauthorized use for the authors of open source software. It could also have a chilling effect, discouraging buyers who fear that the very same protections could push them into an ugly legal thicket.
[ Get the inside scoop on Open Source in InfoWorld's new Topic Center. ]
Moreover, a ruling that could put money into the pockets of wronged developers also means that lawyers, who have remarkably stayed out of disputes around open source software, now have an incentive to become involved. "By opening the door to the increased likelihood of monetary recovery, it changes the dynamic," says Jonathan Moskin, an intellectual property specialist with the New York law firm of White & Case. "And lawyers being lawyers, I'd expect to see more litigation,"
The litigation train
The story begins in 2006, when Robert G. Jacobsen, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was running the Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) project, filed suit against Matthew A. Katzer, a Portland, Ore., businessman who owns Kam Industries.
Jacobsen claimed that Katzer had used a portion of the JMRI in a commercial software program and was redistributing the program without the credit required as part of the artistic open source license it was distributed under.
The case has bounced between federal District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC), arguably the most important court short of the U.S. Supreme Court for intellectual property matters, says Lawrence Rosen, a Ukiah, Calif., attorney who has done quite a bit of work in support of open source.
The facts in the case are somewhat muddled. And it didn't help matters that JMRI was distributed under the first version of the Artistic License, "a document of which one could generously say that the non-lawyers who drafted it years ago took artistic license with legal style and method," Rosen said in a post about the case.