A federal appeals court has overruled a lower court ruling that, if sustained, if allowed to stand, could have neutered popular copyleft licenses such as the GPL and Creative Commons licenses. The district court decision was overturned on Wednesday by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which ruled that redistributing software in violation of the terms of a free software license could constitute copyright infringement.
Larry Lessig, who founded both Creative Commons and Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, called the decision "huge and important." His reaction is likely to be shared by other advocates of free software, who have long worried about the enforceability of copyleft licenses.
The copyright holder in the case is Robert Jacobsen, developer of a software package used by model railroad enthusiasts. A firm called Kamind Associates downloaded parts of Jacobsen's project, stripped out the copyright notice and other identifying information, and began redistributing the modified version without Jacobsen's approval.
JMRI was released under version 1.0 of the Artistic License, which is also widely used in the Perl community. Jacobsen argued that Kamind's failure to comply with the terms of the license deprived it of any permission to redistribute the software and made it guilty of copyright infringement.
The District Court for the Northern District of California disagreed, holding that the Artistic License granted an "intentionally broad" license to the JMRI software, and that violations of the license terms should be viewed as mere breaches of contract rather than copyright infringement.
In December, a broad coalition of organizations that rely on copyleft licenses, including Creative Commons, the Software Freedom Law Center, and the Wikimedia Foundation, filed an amicus brief urging that the ruling be overturned.
[The brief] made the case that the decision could "disrupt settled expectations on which literally millions of individuals, including award winning producers, firms such as IBM, educational institutions such as MIT and Harvard, and even governments have built businesses, educational initiatives, artistic collaborations, and public service projects."
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 [...] 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.