Dr. Dobb's is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Channels ▼

JVM Languages

Saving Open Source

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.

Related Reading

More Insights

Currently we allow the following HTML tags in comments:

Single tags

These tags can be used alone and don't need an ending tag.

<br> Defines a single line break

<hr> Defines a horizontal line

Matching tags

These require an ending tag - e.g. <i>italic text</i>

<a> Defines an anchor

<b> Defines bold text

<big> Defines big text

<blockquote> Defines a long quotation

<caption> Defines a table caption

<cite> Defines a citation

<code> Defines computer code text

<em> Defines emphasized text

<fieldset> Defines a border around elements in a form

<h1> This is heading 1

<h2> This is heading 2

<h3> This is heading 3

<h4> This is heading 4

<h5> This is heading 5

<h6> This is heading 6

<i> Defines italic text

<p> Defines a paragraph

<pre> Defines preformatted text

<q> Defines a short quotation

<samp> Defines sample computer code text

<small> Defines small text

<span> Defines a section in a document

<s> Defines strikethrough text

<strike> Defines strikethrough text

<strong> Defines strong text

<sub> Defines subscripted text

<sup> Defines superscripted text

<u> Defines underlined text

Dr. Dobb's encourages readers to engage in spirited, healthy debate, including taking us to task. However, Dr. Dobb's moderates all comments posted to our site, and reserves the right to modify or remove any content that it determines to be derogatory, offensive, inflammatory, vulgar, irrelevant/off-topic, racist or obvious marketing or spam. Dr. Dobb's further reserves the right to disable the profile of any commenter participating in said activities.

Disqus Tips To upload an avatar photo, first complete your Disqus profile. | View the list of supported HTML tags you can use to style comments. | Please read our commenting policy.