August 15, 2008

Federal Circuit Confirms Key Free Software Licensing Practice

Filed under: code, copyright, events, law, open — wseltzer @ 2:08 pm

The Federal Circuit held this week in Jacobsen v. Katzer, that Java Model Railroad Interface author Robert Jacobsen’s release of software under the Artistic License gave him the right to sue for copyright infringement those who distributed modified JMRI software without obeying the conditions of its license. The decision confirms an important cornerstone to many of the open source and free software licenses: Taking the work without accepting its license’s conditions is an infringement of copyright, subject to all of copyright’s enforcement options.

Users of free and open source licenses, or Creative Commons licenses for non-software works, offer their works to the world on a non-exclusive basis on a set of conditions. In the Artistic License, those conditions are:

provided that [the user] insert a prominent notice in each changed file stating how and when [the user] changed that file, and provided that [the user] do at least ONE of the following:

a) place [the user's] modifications in the Public Domain or otherwise make them Freely Available, such as by posting said modifications to Usenet or an equivalent medium, or placing the modifications on a major archive site such as, or by allowing the Copyright Holder to include [the user's] modifications in the Standard Version of the Package.

b) use the modified Package only within [the user's] corporation or organization.

c) rename any non-standard executables so the names do not conflict with the standard executables, which must also be provided, and provide a separate manual page for each nonstandard executable that clearly documents how it differs from the Standard Version, or

d) make other distribution arrangements with the Copyright Holder.

If you accept the conditions of the public license and follow them, as by making source code available and giving clear notification of changes from the original, your reuse of the original copyrighted work is licensed, no further action required. If you can’t work with the conditions of the public license, you’re always free to contact the copyright holder to negotiate alternate terms. What Jacobsen v. Katzer confirms, however, is that you’re not free to disregard the license conditions and yet claim your redistribution of the copyrighted work is non-infringing.

License v. Contract: Katzer, the taker who didn’t follow license terms, had argued that JMRI could sue only for breach of contract. The court explicitly disagreed. This is significant for licensors because copyright infringement is both simpler to prove: show unlicensed copying and substantial similarity to the original, rather than acceptance of a contract and damages from breach of its terms; and offers benefits such as statutory damages (no proof of loss required) and presumptions of “irreparable harm” that let the licensor get a preliminary injunction against continued infringing distribution.

Economics: The decision recognizes the economic advantages to choosing non-monetary forms of “compensation” for use of a publicly licensed work: “Copyright licenses are designed to support the right to exclude… The choice to exact consideration in the form of compliance with the open source requirements of disclosure and explanation of changes, rather than as a dollar-denominated fee, is entitled to no less legal recognition.” “The 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 law does not mandate these terms by default, but if a copyright holder chooses to apply them to make his works more readily available on non-dollar terms, the law will enforce them.

Anti-FUD: Finally, the decision should help clear some of the “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” that opponents of free software try to sow around free and open source licenses. They may rarely have been tested in court because parties prefer to negotiate better solutions between themselves, but when tested, the licenses do hold up, to enforce the terms their users intend.

See also NYT, Lessig, WSJ.

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