Open Source Wins Landmark Legal Validation

Open source developers now have newly clarified protection, thanks to an appeals court ruling over the validity of their licenses. A judge with U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled Wednesday that programmers who “engage in open source licensing” and copyright their work do “have the right to control the modification and distribution” of their products.

The case draws clear lines around what had until now been uncertain territory. It all started in 2006, when a developer at Java Model Railroad Interface claimed someone had used part of his open source code in another product without crediting his company — something that was required in the Artistic License under which the software was covered. A judge initially said that lack of attribution did not constitute copyright infringement, even though it was a violation of the license agreement. JMRI appealed, and this week’s ruling is the result.

Different Reasoning

The original judge reasoned that because JMRI’s code was given out for free, the company shouldn’t be able to sue and get money when someone breaks its license. The judge this week, however, reasoned differently.

“Attribution and modification transparency requirements directly serve to drive traffic to the open source incubation page and to inform downstream users of the project, which is a significant economic goal of the copyright holder that the law will enforce,” the ruling reads.

The judge didn’t go as far as to award JMRI any money in the case — the District Court will now have to reconsider that notion — but it did reinforce the validity of the company’s complaint.

Behind the Jargon

All the legal jargon can be made very simple, according to attorney Ross Dannenberg, a partner with Washington, D.C.-based law firm Banner & Witcoff.

“Just because someone distributes something for free doesn’t mean that they’re waiving their copyright remedies,” he told LinuxInsider.

The ruling, Dannenberg explained, really just reinforces what’s already a legal standard: If someone violates your license, you have the right to sue them and collect damages. The only difference, he said, is the distinction that specifies the open source model.

“In the normal case, the license says you can use it as long as you pay me money,” Dannenberg, also an adjunct professor at George Mason Law School, noted.

“This is the first time this situation has come up with respect to an open source license,” he said.

Developer Impact

The end result, then, is simple: Open source developers can now rest more easily, knowing that they too are protected under the same guidelines closed commercial-based interests enjoy.

“I can develop something via open source and I can put it out there and say, ‘You can use it’ — but by doing that, I’m not leaving my copyright rights,” Dannenberg said.

“I just think there’s more clarity,” he added. “From a legal perspective, this result makes sense.”

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