Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a key provision of “copyleft” licenses (PDF) by reversing a lower court ruling in the case of the Java Model Railroad Interface. For a long time we’ve been saying that licenses like the GPL or (as in this case) the Perl Artistic License are theoretical protections of freedom (free as in speech), but had yet to be tested in court. Well, the court tests are underway now, and this one was very important. As Ars Technica points out:
The Federal Circuit appears to have been heavily influenced by the Stanford brief, as it specifically cited Creative Commons, MIT, Wikipedia, and various free software projects as examples of organizations that benefit from copyleft licenses. In a short, clearly-reasoned opinion, the Federal Circuit summarized the public benefits of public licensing and found that the district court had dismissed its terms too lightly. Unlike the lower court, the appeals court seemed to understand that reciprocity lay at the heart of free software licenses. Just as traditional software firms thrive on the exchange of code for money, free software projects thrive on the exchange of code for code. The Federal Circuit recognized that “there are substantial benefits, including economic benefits, to the creation and distribution of copyrighted works under public licenses that range far beyond traditional license royalties.” Allowing those rules to be flaunted undermines the free software model.
There is a long haul ahead, I am sure, in defending these licenses from folks who want to take advantage of free software for commercial gain. Our rights are being defended by organizations like the EFF and (particularly in this case) the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and Creative Commons (both founded by Larry Lessig). Please support the work of these organizations.