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A Big, Linuxy 'Thank You' to Matthew Katzer

By Katherine Noyes
Mar 4, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Sometimes there's nothing like a good lawsuit to force people to acknowledge just how much something is worth.

A Big, Linuxy 'Thank You' to Matthew Katzer

Take FOSS, for example. Sure, there are estimates made of its value from time to time -- the latest, in fact, just recently put the kernel alone at US$1.4 billion -- but for many people out there, "free" in price tends to be viewed as free of value.

So thank goodness for Matthew Katzer! It's all because of him that the Model Train case went to court -- and that there's now an official outcome confirming that free software has real monetary value.

Artistic License

The case, for those who missed it, focused on Katzer's unattributed use of code created by Java Model Railroad Interface developer Robert Jacobsen.

Use of said code required attribution according to the Artistic License under which it was covered.

Last week, after a four-year battle, Katzer agreed to a settlement, including a payment of $100,000.

Linux bloggers, needless to say, were jubilant -- in a guarded kind of way.

'I'd Hate to See What Defeat Is Like'

"Sometimes the good guy doesn't finish last," wrote arizwebfoot on Slashdot, for example.

Similarly: "We should all send Matthew Katzer a thank-you note for being such an obviously bad foe in court," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "Thanks to him we now have a solid precedent in our favor."

Then again, "a victory with a high cost" was what Slashdot blogger ndykman called it, noting all the legal fees and other fines Jacobsen had to endure along the way. "If this is victory for the little guy, I'd really hate to see what defeat is like."

With diverging opinions like that, Linux Girl's debate-o-meter wouldn't stop screaming. It was time to hit the streets of the blogosphere for more thoughts.

'I Don't See the Excitement'

"I really don't see the excitement," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider. "The other side basically came up with the most foolish arguments that even a first-year law student could have ripped to shreds, trying to claim that GPL equaled a 'public domain' to whatever you want to license.

"I would also point out that Jacobsen lost the original round, and only managed to win a judgment on appeal," hairyfeet added. "He also signed a settlement, so I really don't see this making much of a precedent."

The real test of the GPL will come "when some high-powered company like Toshiba or perhaps one of the large router manufacturers decides they are willing to pay to see how far they can push the GPL," he predicted.

'Good to See'

"Considering how messed up patents and copyrights are in this country -- one-click patent, anyone? -- I won't feel GPL is safe until it has been battle-tested against a multibillion dollar corporation," hairyfeet said.

"The legal talent at that level is simply leaps and bounds more sneaky and underhanded then the guys this train manufacturer could afford. If it survives against a Sony? Yeah, then I'll believe it is safe," he concluded.

"It's good to see the courts giving recognition not just to the validity of the GPL, but to the economic value of the code it protects," opined Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

Money ≠ Value?

Nevertheless, "I've always felt that money is probably the worst indicator of something's value,"she added.

"We're seeing this in the way that the newspaper industry is being hollowed out by the Internet," she explained. "Newspapers want to establish pay walls around their content, but their columnists are rebelling.

"The columnists know that the one thing they have of value is that they *do* have a large audience -- a paywall will devastate that readership," Hudson pointed out. "The newspaper publishers know the 'cost' of those free-loading readers to their business -- they *don't* know their true value."

Trying to estimate the value of a site like Groklaw is another example.

"Its value derives from the large user base who can read, and a smaller user base who actively contributes," she noted. "Sound familiar? There are plenty of Web sites that would LOVE to have Groklaw's statistics, but how do you calculate how much that's worth in dollars when the real contribution was in legitimizing online journalism, and when attempts to 'monetize it' by running ambulance-chaser ads, for example, would ruin its credibility and hence its value?"

'Value Is Certainly Underestimated'

Indeed, calculating the value of FOSS is like trying to estimate the value of free speech, love, passion or courage, blogger and educator Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider.

"I can describe its value to me, but it is very difficult to assign a number to it," he explained.

Some try to count the millions of lines of code in Debian, for example, "and multiply by some mythical man-line-of-code amount to come up with a figure," Pogson pointed out. "But the value is certainly underestimated because of the unique qualities of GNU/Linux.

"Debian, for instance, is found on 12 architectures -- do we multiply by 12?" he asked. "What is it worth that the same stuff that runs on AMD64 will run on ARM? What is it worth that a 10-year-old PC can become a useful file/proxy/kid-filter/DNS server?"

'That Is Priceless'

What Pogson can count with great precision, however, are "the hours lost to non-FLOSS software," he added. "I will be giving a lesson in installing GNU/Linux to my computer students next week. My GNU/Linux systems run indefinitely and cost me almost nothing to use. That is priceless."

Priceless, too, is what Linux Girl would call software that's open, collaborative and sharable, that's EULA-free, and that's infinitely adaptable to virtually anything the user wants to do.

And now it's official. Thank you, Matthew Katzer! ;-)


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