Model Trains, Patents and Open Source

NOTE: This was from my old A&L Enterprises blog – but I thought it was interesting…

Fascinating item I heard on Floss Weekly the other day – about the JMRI project.  In this episode they interview Bob Jacobsen about his experience defending JMRI – an open source project for the model railroading community.  This was fascinating for me as I like the concept of Open Source, love model trains and standing up for the little guy.

What happened was Bob Jacobsen, along with others, created the JMRI project – a Java interface to the decoders used in model trains – interacting with DCC decoders  – which use an open protocol.  What’s neat about the DCC system is that – since it’s a standard – I can buy decoders from one manufacturer (the thing that goes in the train) and the control system from another manufacturer.  This means that if I buy a train from a manufacturer with a decoder built-in I can use that on both mine and my friend’s layout – even if our control system (the throttles, etc.) are not from the same manufacturer.  This is a great example of an industry working together for the best good – as there is a both healthy competition without losing the ability for items to work together.  In fact now the really cool thing is sound on the trains itself – which increases the realism greatly (and is just fun!).

The story was about how someone decided, in my opinion, to abuse the work that community had done and take it for their own (wholesale copying open source code into a commercial product and removing the copyright notices).  This person (the whole history is here) sued the people in the open source project for ridiculous sums of money (especially considering they didn’t derive revenue from it) and took actions to threaten their primary income.

What’s great is that they stood up – they didn’t give in and roll over – but fought their way through the court system (it took years and thousands of dollars). By doing this they helped established the rights of open source – in that just because you don’t charge for something it doesn’t mean you give up all ownership of it.  Of course what was ridiculous about this was that the guy was basically taking the code they wrote, putting it in his commercial code and then suing them for infringing on his stupid patent (there was plenty of prior art – which wasn’t mentioned in his application)

There’s nothing wrong with writing software and charging for it – but what’s wrong is using that to take away from others who choose to give it away.  Collaboration is an important part of our society -not just competition.  I want companies in the US to focus on making better products – not playing legal games.  Other countries just don’t respect intellectual property they way the US does – so relying on that doesn’t work very well globally.  Many open source companies focus on something else important – selling a service – instead of a product.  Novel concept – provide value to your customers – instead of manipulating the market.  I think I’m being cynical now – but I think the marketplace is evolving to the point where not being focused on providing your customers value is not a good place to be in…

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