The Model Train Software Brouhaha Ends: Open Source Wins

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 19, 2010

Although some people viewed it as a tempest in a teapot, the long-running legal case Jacobsen v. Katzer stirred up some seminal open source issues. We first reported on the dust-up all the way back in August of 2008, noting that the dispute centered around--of all things--model train software.

Specifically, Jacobsen had developed JMRI, the Java Model Railroad Interface project. When Katzer built the code for the project into proprietary model train software, deleting existing copyright notices within the code, Jacobsen filed suit. Now, settlement documents are available online, and the end of the dispute points to a final victory for open source licenses.

The settlement documents show that Katzer will pay Jacobsen $100,000 over 18 months, cease using the JMRI code, and not attempt to register domains using the JMRI name. Previously, the legal dispute had gone all the way to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is the last legal stop before the Supreme Court. As Lawrence Lessig noted in a post, when the Court of Appeals upheld the Artistic License that governed the use of JMRI, it was "an important victory" for free licenses. Lessig noted that the decision had broad implications for many open source licenses.

The settlement between Jacobsen and Katzer was probably inevitable, but as noted open source pundit Andy Updegrove writes today:

"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...While FOSS 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."

Most open source licenses, including the GPL, are based on the rights of copyright holders. Katzer, the defendant in this long-running case, had argued that violating the distribution rules for an open source project doesn't necessarily remove the right to distribute the software. In its findings in favor of Jacobsen, the Court of Appeals said that "copyright holders who engage in open source licensing have the right to control the modification and distribution of copyrighted material." That's important, and with the settlement between Jacobsen and Katzer, the final shoe has dropped, with a precedent set that will help defend open source licenses in the future.

Image courtesy of Elsie esq. on Flickr.