First things first; the defendant – KAM Industries – has not been found guilty of violating copyright; the case is not yet over and has been remanded for further proceedings. This case is of significant interest to open source authors and aficionados because of the legal weight it gives to free and open source software, protecting the interests of authors and project teams but no value judgment ought to be made against either of the players.
The story begins many years ago. Robert Jacobsen had been hosting a project on SourceForge called JMRI (Java Model Railroad Interface.) This project commenced on May 7th, 2001, with the goal of providing Java interfaces and sample implementations for controlling a model railroad layout from a personal computer.
Architecturally, the interfaces provided and extensible client/server environment so model train enthusiasts with a bit of programming ability could automate their hobby. The server component bridges the client software and the command station on the train layout, sending commands and returning information.
On April 17th, 2002, Matthew Katzer – through his company Kamind Associates, trading under the name KAM Industries – filed a patent. This was successfully issued on March 11th, 2003 and given United States Patent 6,530,329 B2.
The patent covered the claim for a system which operates a digitally controlled model railroad by transmitting a first command from a first client program to a resident external controlling interface through a first communications transport. A second command is transmitted from a second client program to the resident external controlling interface through a second communications transport. The first command and the second command are received by the resident external controlling interface which queues the first and second commands. The resident external controlling interface sends third and fourth commands representative of the first and second commands, respectively, to a digital command station for execution on the digitally controlled model railroad.
Legalese aside, the patent simply covers the notion of, well, a client/server software system that allows multiple concurrent client programs to control a model train system by routing commands through a piece of server software.
Largely, the patent covers concepts but does describe an invention that implements the concepts. Specifically, the technology used within the patent is Visual Basic program source code. The patent specifically states that “the communications transport is preferably a COM or DCOM interface” which refers to a Microsoft Windows-based model for encapsulating objects on either the local or a remote computer.
On March 8th 2005 KAM Industries wrote to Robert Jacobsen stating the JMRI software violated the patent they owned. Specifically, JMRI provided the facility for simultaneous distinct programs to communicate with a server, via TCP/IP, and then control a command station on a model railroad. Irrespective that JRMI was implemented with different technologies the concepts were far too close for KAM’s comfort.
It's the law: open source doesn't mean no copyright
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David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. Within two years, he returned to his alma mater, the University of Newcastle, as a UNIX systems manager. This was a crucial time for UNIX at the University with the advent of the World-Wide-Web and the decline of VMS. David moved on to a brief stint in consulting, before returning to the University as IT Manager in 1998. In 2001, he joined an international software company as Asia-Pacific troubleshooter, specialising in AIX, HP/UX, Solaris and database systems. Settling down in Newcastle, David then found niche roles delivering hard-core tech to the recruitment industry and presently is the Chief Information Officer for a national resources company where he particularly specialises in mergers and acquisitions and enterprise applications.