Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Artistic License is a copyright license after all

In the Jacobsen v. Katzer case, the trial court had ruled that the Artistic License (the open-source license under which the software involved was distributed) was a contract, not a copyright license. The Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit has overturned that ruling. The case is convoluted, because it originates not out of a copyright dispute but out of a patent issue. The copyright aspect came up out of the patent portion of the case. But it's good news nonetheless for open-source software. One of the standard arguments by open-source detractors is that the GPL and similar licenses are just contracts, subject to the vagaries of contract law, and violations of them have to be pursued as contract breaches. Now it's possible to hold up this ruling and say to them "The US Appeals Court disagrees with you.". Among other things this affects are the ability to recover costs. In a standard breach-of-contract suit the plaintiff, even if they win, is expected to bear their own costs except in unusual circumstances. In copyright-infringement actions, though, the law grants the prevailing party a much greater right to recover their costs and legal fees. This makes it easier for open-source authors to find lawyers willing to help them with copyright enforcement.

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