5 Minute FAQ: Open Source Licenses

Q: What is an open source license, and why is it important?

There are many kinds of open source licenses with a great variety of terms and conditions – Creative Commons License, GNU General Public License, Sun Community Source License, and many others. Open source licensing is becoming an increasingly important business model to distribute creative works (below). As explained in the Licensing Glossary, generally speaking an open source license is one that allows broad rights to use, modify, and distribute copyrighted material without payment of a royalty, so long as the user does not place proprietary restrictions on later users of his content. For example, the Terms of Use of popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia state that, “you can use content from Wikipedia projects freely,” as long as users make their own contributions freely available to others. In the context of software, an open source license is one that complies with the ten requirements of the Open Source Initiative, including: 1) “free” redistribution (“free” as in no downstream proprietary restrictions, and “free” as in no royalties on the original or revised code); 2) inclusion of or easy access to detailed source code; 3) the right to create and distribute modifications and derivative works; and 4) no inclusion of “downstream” license restrictions that reduce or undercut the other open source terms, i.e. once open source, always open source, no matter who adds what later on in time. Although open source software is often called “free software,” that is not quite accurate. One of the best known examples of an open source software license, the GNU General Public License, does prohibit royalties, but also permits licensors to charge a small fee for the physical act of transferring the software, as well as service fees for warranties and maintenance. In the context of licensing of text and images, the GNU Free Documentation License and various Creative Commons licenses are guided by similar open source concepts.

Q: Why would anyone just give away their creative work under an open source license?

Why indeed. The success of the open source licensing model is one of the most fascinating phenomena of the digital age. Sophisticated products with major market impact are available for free under open source licenses: the Firefox Internet browser; the Wikipedia online encyclopedia; and Apache server software. Although traditional forms of intellectual property protection are based on the assumption that the profit motive (self interest) is the greatest driver of innovation, open source licensing is based on the assumption that unrestricted sharing of knowledge and innovation (collaboration) best begets further knowledge and innovation. There is also a hybrid business model, based on the “give away the razor for free to make money selling the razor blades” concept. In some cases, for-profit businesses contribute to open source software so they can sell associated databases, or maintenance, or hardware—several distributors of the open source Linux operating system sell warranties and maintenance to go with their version of Linux, while several sellers of smartphones “give away” the open source Android software that runs them. (Smartphones running Android outsold Apple’s popular iPhone during the first quarter of 2010.)

Q: What happens if the user ignores the requirements of an open source license, for example by charging a license fee for its altered version of the open source material?

Until recently, it was not clear if there was any penalty to ignoring the requirements of an open source license. Opponents of open source licensing had previously argued that if licensors gave their product away for free, then even if licensees ignored the terms of the license, there were no damages. But in Jacobsen v. Katzer, the Court Of Appeals for the Federal Circuit put legal teeth in the open source licensing model, by ruling that violation of an open source license was not just a breach of the license, but might also be a copyright infringement. The case involved software developed by physics professor and model train enthusiast Robert Jacobsen to program decoder chips that control model trains. Jacobsen made the software available under the open source Artistic License. Matthew Katzer and Kamind Associates copied several of Jacobsen’s files into their own commercial software, but in violation of the license terms, did not include a notice of attribution to Jacobsen. While Katzer and Kamind conceded that Jacobsen’s software was copyrighted, they argued that since the Artistic License permitted them to copy the files, there was no copyright infringement, at worst only a breach of the license terms. The CAFC disagreed, ruling that since the attribution requirement was drafted as a condition under which the license was granted, copying in violation of a condition was not excused by the license, and was therefore a copyright infringement. The case is significant not only because it is the first major case validating the concept of open source licensing, but also gives open source licensors a much more effective means to enforce the license. Although contract damages are normally calculated on economic harm suffered by the injured party (and therefore difficult to prove when a product is given away for free), under copyright law, creators can collect damages and attorneys fees based on the infringer’s profit, or under a fixed formula called statutory damages. Furthermore, copyright law allows the licensor to pursue licensees of the licensee, while contract law normally does not. Thus, the Jacobsen case gives real teeth to open source licensing—however, at this time it is limited to cases under the jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit. Although the Jacobsen case makes it much easier for open source licensors to get damages to enforce license terms, an important open question is how easily they can get injunctions to enforce open source license terms, for example an injunction ordering a licensee to disclose its source code to the public, or even shutting down all further distribution of the licensee’s software.

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4 Responses to “5 Minute FAQ: Open Source Licenses”

  1. [...] here: 5 Minute FAQ: Open Source Licenses « The Licensing Law Blog This entry was posted on Thursday, May 13th, 2010 at 4:29 pm and is filed under Linux, Software, [...]

  2. [...] the original: 5 Minute FAQ: Open Source Licenses « The Licensing Law Blog Filed Under Linux, Open Source, Uncategorized Tagged With Linux, Open Source, operating-system, [...]

  3. Stephen says:

    Enjoyable and informative read. Thanks. You might be interested in this Washington Legal Foundation article by Beth Shaw: http://www.wlf.org/publishing/publication_detail.asp?id=2164

  4. Richard R. Bergovoy says:

    Thanks for the link, Stephen. It provides details of public interest organizations instituting multiple lawsuits against companies that use open source software in violation of the license terms, as well as additional information on the philosophy and legal basis of open source licensing. I recommend it for anyone interested in this topic.

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