A Win for Open Source Licensing

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 13, 2008

A court case that might otherwise not have much significance for most OStatic readers - it centers around a dispute between two vendors of model train software - has given rise to an unexpectedly-clear ruling on the merits of open source licenses. As reported by Groklaw and Lawrence Lessig, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (who are the last resort before the Supreme Court for this sort of case) has upheld the basic theory that most open source licenses are based on.

You can download the court's decision (PDF) and wade through the 16 pages of analysis if you like, but here's how it plays out: most open source licenses (including the GPL) are based on the rights of copyright holders. If you attach the GPL to something, you're giving other people the right to use and redistribute your copyrighted work, so long as they follow the other license conditions you set out. Break those conditions, and others downstream from you are no longer licensed users: they're violators of your copyright, and you can go after them.

The defendant in this particular case argued a different theory. Their notion was that the license (Artistic License in this case) had granted them redistribution rights, and that if they broke the rules (which they admit) they're not infringing copyright - they're just violating a covenant, which is a different kettle of fish. Under their theory, breaking the distribution rules for an open source project doesn't automatically remove your right to distribute it.

 The US District Court originally agreed with the defendants, and held there was no liability for copyright infringement. But the Court of Appeals emphatically disagreed:

 Copyright holders who engage in open source licensing have the right to control the
modification and distribution of copyrighted material.

Now, this still doesn't amount to a full-blown test of the GPL.  But it does mean that the theory underlying the GPL (and its descendants) has received an endorsement from one of the highest courts in the land - another move in favor of the cleverness of the folks who came up with it in the first place.