Update on *Artifex v. Hancom* GNU GPL compliance case
A new ruling was issued on September 25th in the ongoing GNU General Public License (GPL) compliance case of Artifex v. Hancom. The case involves a piece of software licensed under the GPL version 3 or later, called Ghostscript. It is a project from Artifex for handling PostScript, PDFs, and printers (GNU Ghostscript is a separate version of the project, and is not involved or implicated in the case). As we wrote previously:
In its suit, Artifex claimed two counts based on Hancom's inclusion of Ghostscript: (1) a violation of copyright; and (2) a breach of contract based on the GPL. ... While a violation of a free license giving rise to a copyright violation is now old hat, whether violation of a license like the GPL could be treated as a breach of contract has been long a topic of discussion among licensing geeks.
In the previous ruling, the judge in the case had denied a motion to dismiss those claims, allowing the case to proceed. We've now reached the next step in the suit, involving a motion for summary judgment on the contract claim, which was also denied. In a motion to dismiss, the court assumes the truth of the allegations involved and rules on whether such allegations actually present a valid legal claim. In summary judgment, the court is asked to look at the undisputed facts and determine whether the outcome is so obvious that the matter need not go through a full trial. Such motions are routine, but making it past summary judgment does mean that the issue of recovery under contract theory is still alive in this case.
Hancom here made several arguments against the contract claim, but one is of particular interest. Hancom argued that if any contract claim is allowed, damages should only be considered prior to the date of their initial violation. They argued that since the violation terminated their license, the contract also ended at that point. The judge noted that:
the language of the GPL suggests that Defendant’s obligations persisted beyond termination of its rights to propagate software using Ghostscript ... because the source code or offer of the source code is required each time a “covered work” is conveyed, each time Defendant distributed a product using Ghostscript there was arguably an ensuing obligation to provide or offer to provide the source code.
The judge also found that there was insufficient evidence at this point to rule on this issue, so we can't read too much into it. But the judge's thoughts on how conditions of the GPL persist after a violation is an important clue on how this issue could develop as the case proceeds. Although the GPL does not need to be upheld as a contract in order to protect user freedom -- it has worked successfully as a copyright license for decades -- procedural rulings like this are just more evidence that claims about it not standing up in court or being easy to defeat are baseless fear-mongering.
With summary judgment denied, the case will move forward, and will be very interesting to watch. To keep up to date on this case and more: