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DMCA helps Right to Repair campaign score big win

You can't copyright ideas

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An automobile trade association which tried to copyright its specifications, then sued a member for implementing them, has lost a significant legal battle. It's a victory for the Right to Repair campaign being waged by independent car mechanics. Car control systems are increasingly computerized, and the small repair shops find themselves being locked out of technical information they need.

In Drew Technologies Inc. vs Society of Automative Engineers (SAE), the latter laid claim to "ideas, procedures, processes, methods of operation, concepts, principles or discoveries" in the Society's own technical standards documentation and sued DrewTech for copyright infringement. In 2002 DrewTech wrote software compliant with a draft SAE standard and published it on SourceForge under the GPL. DrewTech president Mike Drew is a participant in the SAE task force. In October 2003 SAE said the information was copyrighted and sued DrewTech. It objected to the use of the GPL, and demanded a license fee for the implementation.

"At no time has SAE ever authorized anyone to convert the J1699c source code to a GNU General Public License or any other open source free software or ever authorized the placement of a copyright notice in a name other than SAE's on the J1699c source code," claimed the SAE.

The trouble is, the SAE had no right to claim copyright - because copyright law doesn't protect the ideas, only the expression or implementation of those ideas. Many standards bodies copyright a reference implementation, but the SAE had not. An eloquent case was made by DrewTech's lawyers, who cited Thomas Jefferson.

"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me," Jefferson once wrote.

DrewTech responded with a lawsuit alleging violation of the GPL and violation of the DMCA, as well as contributory copyright infringement.

As a result, the SAE has surrendered at the discovery stage. It has agreed not to assert its copyright claim and will pay DrewTech $75,000.

There's excellent in depth coverage about the case at Groklaw, where it's ambiguously billed as "A GPL Win in Michigan", and where surprise is expressed that the DMCA was invoked to defend the GPL.

But this confusion simply this reflects the sclerotic nature of the online discussions about copyright. As Eben Moglen, who helped draft the GPL has pointed out here, the GPL relies on strong copyright law.

The GPL remains "untested in court" in the sense that no US judge has made a definitive ruling. But the fact that an increasing number of GPL cases have fallen before even reaching this stage gives credence to Moglen's view that the GPL is "an industrial strength legal contract". This should give encouragement to FOSS supporters everywhere.

What Bill Gates misleadingly called an "intellectual property Pacman" lives to chomp another day. ®

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