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 ▼


Saving Open Source

The Case Behind the Case

But why did this case end up in a patent court instead of a copyright court? The reason is that, in a strictly legal sense, a charge of patent infringement was the trigger for the legal actions that led to this case being heard. And curiously, it was Jacobsen who was accused of violating Katzer's patent, although it was Jacobsen who filed the suit against Katzer. The law is indeed a curious thing.

In a sense, nobody really knows what the law is until a case is brought and a judge gets to rule on specific facts. And a case gets brought when some individual chooses to do so, meaning that the detailed facts in a particular case have a lot to do with what elements of the law come to the judge's attention and therefore how the nuances of interpretation play out. But free and open-source software was waiting for its day in court, and this particular case got it there.

Jacobsen works at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and is a model train enthusiast. He is the principle developer of the JMRI Project (jmri.sourceforge.net), an open-source project devoted to his Java Model Railroad Interface software. Jacobsen knew he had a problem when he started getting letters from Katzer alleging violation of Katzer's patent, culminating in a request for something over $200,000.

Jacobsen looked at Katzer's software and decided he'd better strike first. He file a preemptive suit against Katzer, claiming that Katzer's patent was fraudulently obtained, invalid, and unenforceable; and that in fact Katzer had improperly incorporated part of Jacobsen's JMRI software in the code for which he claimed a patent. He also charged Katzer with cybersquatting and a few other offenses. And he made an online plea to other developers to help him nail down the prior art to debunk Katzer's patent. Open-source lawyers and developers jumped on board, helping him make his case.

And Jacobsen v Katzer became the test case for the enforceability of copyleft licenses.

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.