Open source project derailed by patent spat

Open source project derailed by patent spat

Model railway control project 'harassed by monopolistic commercial competitor'

KAM Industries has locked horns with the Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) open source software project over alleged patent violations.

Both organisations develop tools that allow hobbyists to control and manage model railways using computers.

KAM Industries alleges that the open source project, which is run by Robert Jacobson, violates a patent owned by KAM.

The firm has not filed any legal claims, but has invoiced Jacobson $29 per distributed copy of its application, a total of $203,000.

Jacobson has retaliated with a lawsuit against KAM Industries and its founder Matthew Katzer.

The suit asks the court to invalidate the patent and rule that the company engaged in illegal acts to monopolise the market for multi-train control software in the US. He is also demanding $50,000 in damages as well as punitive damages.

The case offers a rare example of a patent holder going after an open source developer, which is generally believed to be the Achilles heel of open source projects.

There have allegedly been previous cases, but these have been settled by the defendant agreeing to a non-disclosure clause thereby keeping the details under wraps.

Commercial software vendors typically indemnify their customers for any legal claims. Sun Microsystems, for instance, paid $92m in 2004 to settle a legal case against Kodak over a patent covering the Java computer language.

Because open source software lacks a corporate structure to handle legal issues, patent holders can go after individual developers or users of the application.

Some Linux advocates fear that Microsoft could use such a tactic to go after the open source operating system.

"It is abundantly clear that patents like this hurt the efforts of those trying to make the world a better place by producing tools for others to use, for free in this case," said Lenford Jackson on the Right to Create blog.

"It is equally clear that even small companies can use their patents as bludgeons against individuals."

Jackson added that, if patent holders are looking for licence fees, they have little to gain from going after open source project as they lack revenues.

KAM Industries has previously tried to enforce its patent against competitors, but later dismissed the suits. Jacobson's lawyer alleges that the company gave up its earlier legal pursuits because it realised that the patent could not be enforced.

The company then "conspired to find easier targets" and in at least one case forced a provider of free railroad control software to pay a royalty fee, according to legal documents.