A Big Victory for F/OSS: Jacobsen v. Katzer is Settled

Have you discovered the Alexandria Project?

A long running case of great significance to the legal underpinnings of free and open source/open source software (F/OSS) has just settled on terms favorable to the F/OSS developer.  The settlement follows a recent ruling by a U.S. Federal District Court judge that affirmed several key rights of F/OSS developers under existing law.

That case is Jacobsen v. Katzer, and the settlement documents were filed in court just after 9:00 AM this morning.  Links to each of them can be found later in this blog entry.  The brief background of the case, the legal issues at stake, and the settlement details are as follows.

The software underlying such an important legal dispute is almost charmingly inconsequential from a commercial point of view – model railroad software.  But to the litigants, the stakes were high relative to their resources and their commitment to that niche.  The plaintiff, Robert Jacobsen, is a software developer member of the Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) Project, and the defendant, Matthew Katzer, is the owner of a proprietary vendor of model train software called KAMIND associates, d/b/a KAM Industries.

While the factual background is comparatively simple – Katzer incorporated code written by Jacobsen into Katzer’s software, and deleted the copyright notices included in that software in the process – the legal issues at stake were very important.  From the F/OSS perspective, one of the most important questions involved whether a developer of software that made its code available for free – which, like most open source projects the JMRI Project did – can collect damages for copyright infringement.  If a F/OSS project cannot collect damages, then there would be little disincentive for anyone to reuse the project’s software in violation of the license terms the F/OSS project had adopted. 

Those terms can include an affirmative obligation of a commercial developer to “give back” its own changes to the code for the benefit of others.  They invariably also include an obligation to acknowledge the authorship of those that had created the earlier code. 

While F/OSS software has become pervasive throughout the world, the licenses under which such software is made available are only just now becoming subject to disputes being heard in courts.  Because the courts of most countries, such as the United States, are obligated to enforce the same legal holdings on similar facts that courts in their jurisdiction have previously handed down, the outcomes of these first cases are extremely important. 

And in the case of Jacobsen v. Katzer, the decisions reached would be the first of their kind in the United States.  Morever, the case was brought in a Federal District Court (in this case the District Court for the Northern District of California), which would ensure that the decisions reached would be both closely watched. 

While a full description of the various legal maneuverings that have occurred over the last several years is beyond the scope of this blog entry, you can find some background on the earlierr key decisions in the lawsuit here.  For current purposes, we will pick up the thread last fall, after initial rulings favoring Jacobsen had been handed by the District Court.  After this reversal, Katzer brought an appeal before the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, meaning that whatever rulings that court handed down would be binding on all of the District Courts within that large federal Circuit.  And the Appeals Court affirmed the District Court’s ruling that violating the terms of the F/OSS license in question would result in the violation of Jacobsen’s enforceable copyright.  The case was then sent back (“remanded”) to the District Court for further action consistent with the Appellate Court’s affirmations.

After that ruling, both sides moved for “summary judgment” (i.e., a ruling by a judge acting alone, based only on the law, rather than a judge and a jury working together, based on the facts as well as the law) on a variety of points.  The judge rejected Katzer’s motions, and granted Jacobsen’s in part.  Significantly for the F/OSS cause,  the court found in favor of Jacobsen on three key points:

1.  The code in question was sufficiently original to be entitled to copyright protection.  While not unique to F/OSS code, this was a legal issue on which Jacobsen had to prevail in order to assert claims under copyright law.

2.  While 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,” thus laying the basis for monetary damages.

3.  The removal of the copyright and authorship data contained in the pirated code was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, thus providing a basis for suit for that action in violation of the JMRI license.

While the District Court judge did not agree, as requested by Jacobsen, to enter an injunction against Katzer, Katzer apparently decided it was time time cut his losses and settle for the most advantageous terms he could reach with Jacobsen.  The Settlement Agreement signed by the parties can be found here, and the Injunction they agreed to, which the Court will now enter, can be found here.

With the case now settled, there can be no further appeals – meaning that the rulings of the District and Appeals courts are now binding in their circuit.  Although federal courts in other circuits will not be bound this court’s decision, the California circuit is well respected, and other federal judges nationwide will be influenced by its legal conclusions.  As a result, the results of the Jacobsen v. Katzer could evenutally become the law of the land.

The result?  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.  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.

All as a result of the determination of one model train buff to protect not only his rights, but those of the F/OSS community as well.

Have you discovered the Alexandria Project?