This Just In: Open Source is Legit

Many of you have already read the news: Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that, yes, a software company has infringed upon an open source project’s copyright by failing to adhere to the terms of its license. Specifically, the Artistic License.

If you keep up with what’s been going on, you can skip this paragraph. KAM Industries sells software that powers model railroads, and used some technology from the project JMRI in its Decoder Commander product. Last May, a judge ruled that KAM Industries did, in fact, violate the terms of the Artistic License…but since it was only a breach of contract it wasn’t a big enough deal to do anything about. Yesterday’s ruling found that it was also in violation of the original copyright, which is almost certainly enough to convince a judge to make them stop. I’m not a lawyer, but that sounds about right to me.

There was much rejoicing by Dana Blankenhorn at ZDNet and Matt Asay at CNet, who considered it a great victory for open source. I think it is too. PJ at Groklaw had a different spin, though. She believes that the open source community pretty much dodged a bullet with this judgement, and needs to be a bit more savvy about license creation in the future.

But let’s be fair about that. It’s kind of hard to be savvy about licenses when there are so many to choose from that developers are unlikely to read them all (and even more unlikely to understand them.) I think a lot of us dreamily reminisce about the days when we could just code and not worry about contracts, injunctions, or copyright laws. Will it ever be that way again?

No, I think the best we can hope for now is complete victory: a set of licenses, clearly defined and understandable, and an international legal system that is intimately familiar with all of them. But then we’d also have to deal with the postbellum mundanity that sucks the excitement out of every successful cool movement. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you weren’t at LinuxWorld this year.

At its most fundamental level, open source is about legality: unless open source licenses can rely on our legal system to enforce the freedoms they’re trying to protect, open source doesn’t really exist. So let’s give a round of applause for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and for JMRI for standing up for what’s right!

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