FOSS Dev Gets Damages in Precedent-Setting Model Train Case

After nearly four years of legal battle, a case involving the unauthorized use of open source software last week came to a final conclusion that affirms the legal right of open source developers to collect damages when their code is used improperly.

The case of Jacobsen v. Katzer dates back to 2006, when Robert Jacobsen, a developer at Java Model Railroad Interface, claimed that Kamind Associates’ Matthew Katzer had used part of his open source code in another product without giving credit.

Such attribution 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 a ruling was made in 2008 in its favor.

$100,000 in Damages

The case was then sent back to the U.S. Federal District Court of Northern California to determine an appropriate remedy. In December, the court ruled in a summary judgment that Jacobsen is entitled to collect monetary damages.

The court also declared that Katzer’s removal of attribution and copyright information from the JMRI code he used constituted a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Now, Jacobsen and Katzer have signed a settlement agreement by which Katzer will pay US$100,000, spread over the next 18 months. A permanent injunction will also be entered by the Court expressly forbidding Katzer from further misuse of the software that JMRI has created, and forbidding him to register any domain names that should rightly belong to the company.

‘A Significant Victory’

“F/OSS has achieved a significant victory that will provide comfort to developers that their expectations will be satisfied when they contribute code to a software project,” wrote Andy Updegrove, a partner at Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove, in a Friday blog post on the topic.

“This is particularly significant for projects that adopt so-called ‘restrictive’ licenses, such as the GNU General Public License, which are intended to prevent exploitation of the work of community developers for unauthorized commercial purposes,” Updegrove added.

Indeed, a key part of the case was the recognition that even though the JMRI Project made its code available for free, there was “evidence in the record attributing a monetary value for the actual work performed by the contributors to the JMRI project,” he noted. In that value was the basis for the monetary damages that were awarded.

Now that the case is settled, there can be no further appeals. Perhaps even more important is that although federal courts in other circuits are not necessarily bound by this decision, it does set a precedent for other federal judges nationwide.

“As a result,” Updegrove pointed out, “the results of Jacobsen v. Katzer could eventually become the law of the land.”

‘The Little Engine That Could’

Jacobsen is “the little engine that could protect his intellectual property,” Raymond Van Dyke, a partner with Merchant & Gould, told LinuxInsider.

The case is “most likely the first of many cases on this issue, elucidating the law in a new area,” he added.

“To the open source community this gives additional tools, copyright claims apart from contract claims, to pursue others taking code prepared for open source use,” Van Dyke concluded.

‘A Very Significant Precedent’

Indeed, the case “serves to legitimize and bolster open source software licenses, particularly in the U.S. courts and legal books,” 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman added.

Unlike the Software Freedom Law Center’s BusyBox lawsuits, which were settled more quickly, “this comes after ruling and appeal, and so lays the groundwork” for future rulings, Lyman told LinuxInsider. “Given that FOSS is a novelty in the U.S. courts, it’s a very significant precedent,” he said.

By asserting monetary value for the work in question, the case also serves to associate value and legitimacy with open source licensing, Lyman added.

‘There Are Ramifications’

“There’s always been this question of how can you seek damages on something that’s available for free,” he explained. “The courts have said that these licenses and their terms may not always involve monetary value or contribution, but they’re still significant and need to be followed.”

In general, then, the case should raise awareness of the need to comply and help reduce exploitation of open source projects and developers, Lyman concluded: “It lets people know that there are ramifications if you take open source software and use it without regard to its license or what its original authors intended.”

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