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Time To Railroad?

It is highly appropriate that the software at the center of the underlying case was code for controlling model trains. Because model train control software is, in a way, where FOSS began.

As Steven Levy recorded in his 1984 book Hackers, the first true hackers were members of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) at MIT in the late '50s, and the first memorable articulation of the principles on which the FOSS movement are based was the Hacker Ethic espoused by the members of TMRC.

The model railroaders—specifically, members of the Signals and Power Subcommittee of the TMRC—spent hours on their backs under the monster table that supported a room-sized world of HO-gauge tracks and scale models of roads and buildings and trees. They were managing the spaghetti wiring that supported the multiple controllers and trains that ran on those tracks.

When the first class in computer science was offered at MIT, taught by some crazy guy named John McCarthy, the TMRCers already had a complex system that they were trying to manage. Many famous hackers came out of the TMRC, as did, you could argue, the philosophy behind free software.

Interestingly, the control system under the table in the model railroad room would seem to have dealt right from the start with the problem in Jacobsen v Katzer, in that it managed signals from multiple controllers distributed to different sections of track. Complex model train systems have been revisiting that problem for forty years. What this means in terms of prior art in Jacobsen v Katzer is a matter for others to decide.

Credit where credit is due: It would be easy to think that the case was simply a matter of a more savvy court correcting a misguided one, but in fact a lot of work went on behind the scenes to ensure that the decision ultimately came out the way it should—and did. Credit goes of course to Bob Jacobsen for bringing the case and standing up for FOSS. But credit also goes to the lawyers and consultants who offered time and expertise, often for free: Jacobsen's lawyer, Victoria Hall; the authors of the amici brief from Creative Commons, Chris Ridder and Anthony Falzone; Mark Radcliffe, Lawrence Lessig, Karen Copenhaver, Allison Randal, Roberta Cairney, Larry Rosen, Scott Peterson, David Gross, and Steve Chiari; plus the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, the Linux Foundation, Perl Foundation, HP, OSI, and others.

An individual identified as GrayHairPgmr on Lessig's blog put the ruling in this perspective:

In my not so humble opinion, software IS a service, the code is only one delivery vehicle. SaaS is redundant and proprietary software is an oxymoron. This ruling begins a process of building a meaningful legal framework for software commerce.

It's a big deal.


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