Jacobson v. Katzer (Fed. Cir. 2008)
In an interesting decision, the CAFC held that open source license conditions are enforceable under the copyright laws. Jacobson’s open source license at issue here allowed anyone to use his software so long as his conditions are met (such as making any modified code freely available).
Copyright vs Contract: The district court held that violation of the open source conditions are remedied through a contract claim rather than copyright. The CAFC sided with the copyright holder – holding that “Copyright holders who engage in open source licensing have the right to control the modification and distribution of copyrighted material.”
Copyright holders who engage in open source licensing have the right to control the modification and distribution of copyrighted material. As the Second Circuit explained in Gilliam v. ABC, 538 F.2d 14, 21 (2d Cir. 1976), the “unauthorized editing of the underlying work, if proven, would constitute an infringement of the copyright in that work similar to any other use of a work that exceeded the license granted by the proprietor of the copyright.” Copyright licenses are designed to support the right to exclude; money damages alone do not support or enforce that right. 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. Indeed, because a calculation of damages is inherently speculative, these types of license restrictions might well be rendered meaningless absent the ability to enforce through injunctive relief.
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The clear language of the Artistic License creates conditions to protect the economic rights at issue in the granting of a public license. These conditions govern the rights to modify and distribute the computer programs and files included in the downloadable software package. 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. Through this controlled spread of information, the copyright holder gains creative collaborators to the open source project; by requiring that changes made by downstream users be visible to the copyright holder and others, the copyright holder learns about the uses for his software and gains others’ knowledge that can be used to advance future software releases.
This decision is based on the court’s interpretation of 9th Circuit law. However, its impact on patent law may be a reminder that the court will allow patent infringement actions even when the infringement is based on violation of an intricate or exotic licensing contract.