September 14, 2006

Alleged GPL violation spurs accusations, lawsuit

Author: Bruce Byfield

Alexander Maryanovsky, the developer of Jin, a Java-based chess client, has filed a lawsuit in Israel that alleges multiple violations of the GNU General Public License (GPL). In the suit, Maryanovsky alleges that International Chess University (IChessU), a startup offering online chess tutoring, and Alexander Rabinovitch, its CEO, violated both his copyright and the GPL in its production and distribution of the IChessU client, a piece of software based on Jin. Both sides agree on the general outline of events, but differ in their interpretation of the GPL and its applicability.

Originally from Russia, Maryanovsky is a computer science student at Tel Aviv University. Besides Jin, his main contributions to free software are Java programs such as Chessboard and automate. He has also made small contributions to Jedit.

Maryanovsky is especially proud of Jin. After a disastrous first version, he says, "I decided to rewrite it from scratch, and made a promise to myself that I will not write ugly code in it -- Jin would be perfect. It's a big reason why IChessU have been able to build on Jin so easily. Jin is very flexible, modular, and elegant."

The defendant, Alexander Rabinovitch, is a former professional chess player. He was World Champion for high schools in 1996, and is ranked as an International Master, one step below Grand Master. Although he holds a degree in software engineering and management, and has worked in the IT industry for three years, his experience with the GPL stems mainly from IChessU's involvement with Jin. He describes IChessU as "a community of people, brought together by the joy of the game, taking it one step beyond," and as "an educational organization."

For several weeks now, Maryanovsky has publicized the case. His Web site includes the initial documents in the case in both English and Hebrew. His comment on another article on the GPL led to a Slashdot article, and his version of events were also reported in Yediot Ahronot, a major Israeli newspaper. A Google search shows that it has also been widely blogged about, with the majority of posters siding with Maryanovsky.

Rabinovitch has been more reticent, answering questions only after consultation with his lawyer. At first he was surprised at the publicity in the case. He now points to online articles that he believes supports his position, such as Eric Schnell's and Jason Rumney's blogs.

Rabinovitch also dismisses most of the publicity about the case. "All the articles were produced only by Maryanovsky people/fans," he says, "which is fine because they are published in developer's magazines/sites." In a private email, he suggests that Maryanovsky is "setting himself the goal that if he cannot get what he wants at least he will damage IChessU's clean reputation."

Background events

Rabinovitch has not refuted most of the details in the account on Maryanovsky's site when asked to give his version of events. According to Maryanovsky, Rabinovitch approached him in early 2006 for help writing a chess client and server for IChessU. Pleading lack of time, Maryanovsky suggested that IChessU could either use Jin or pay him $4,000 for a commercial license instead. After Maryanovsky gave Rabinovitch advice on technical matters and introduced him to friends with experience with startup companies, on March 27, Rabinovitch told Maryanovsky that he planned to use Jin under the terms of the GPL.

"He also said," Maryanovsky writes, "that they are planning to wrap Jin in a layer that would allow it to be controlled via a socket. I told [Rabinovitch] that I believe this would still, most likely, be violating the GPL."

In the end, IChessu did not use a socket, but produced its own client that Maryanovsky describes as "95% my code and 5% theirs." Rabinovitch agrees, writing in an email, "We never tried to hide the fact that our client is based on the Jin code." IChessU's addtions included an audio/voice over IP module, and several Java classes associated with the module. Some source code was posted to the site, but how much and whether it included the code for the module developed by IChessU is uncertain because, although the link to the source code remains on the IChessU site, the download page is now unavailable.

After IChessU released its chess client, Maryanovsky contacted Rabinovitch, stating that he believed several GPL violations had occurred. "I've offered to meet him in person and go over the GPL so that he understands why he's violating it," Maryanovsky writes in an email. "He refused all my efforts."

When Rabinovitch refused to meet, Maryanovsky contacted the Free Software Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center. Since both are American, their members were reluctant to advise on Israeli law. Instead, Maryanovsky took the recommendation of a friend and retained Jonathan J. Klinger in the case. Klinger is an Israeli attorney who is a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and has acted as a consultant on free and open source licenses.

"What other choice did I have?" Maryanovsky asks. "I don't like to be a pushover."

Rabinovitch, however, writes that "Mr. Maryanovsky's claim is ruled much more by his greediness and vulnerable ego than by any legal essence. The guy is hurt and tries to draw attention and damage the other side, just to make him himself feel better and to get his name known. As a matter of fact, his claims for the money ... can best be considered as begging and at worst as nothing less than extortion."

The claim

The arguments in the case are outlined in three documents appended to Maryanovsky's online account of the dispute: an initial letter, a response to Rabinovitch's reply to the initial letter, and the text of the lawsuit itself. Although the arguments evolve over these three documents, they remain largely consistent. Briefly, they are:

  • IChessU engaged in bad faith negotiations because, after consulting Maryanovsky, the organization used his work without pay.
  • The audio/voice module is not an independent work, since the Jin-based IChessU client cannot compile without its code. Therefore, according to Section 2, it must also be licensed under the GPL.
  • The IChessU client is released under a restrictive EULA, which limits use of the client to a single computer and specifically forbids copying or derivative works. This incompatible license violates section 6 of the GPL.
  • Although section 1 of the GPL requires that copyright notice is preserved when redistributing, IChessU lists the copyright as "unknown," rather than crediting Maryanovsky.
  • Screenshots of Jin appear on the IChessU site in violation of copyright. Translated from Hebrew, the text of the lawsuit claims that "they were made by running the program in a non-licensed manner."

In the original letter that Klinger sent to Rabinovitch on July 6, he requested that the program be removed from the IChessU site and that Maryanovsky be paid 20,000 New Israeli Shekels (NIS), or about $4,500, in damages. However, the filed law suit asks for a permanent injunction against IChessU and Rabinovitch distributing the program, court costs, and 110,000 NIS ($25,000) in damages. 80,000 NIS ($18,000) are for the screen shots on the site.

The counter-claim

Rabinovitch replied to Klinger's original letter in an undated response in English and in private correspondence with NewsForge. In his letter, Rabinovitch rejects the charge of bad faith negotiations because it is made without any explanation or evidence. He also quotes the statement in section 6 of the GPL that the original developer of a piece of software is "not responsible for enforcing compliance by third parties" to claim that Maryanovsky and Klinger both "lack the standing to make any claims." Apparently believing that the GPL applies only to commercial software, he adds that "the software is not yet available for commercial distribution and therefore the GPL does not apply to it." However, he seems to have now dropped both these last two claims.

Writing to NewsForge, Rabinovitch states that all source code was posted to the IChessU site, including that for the audio-visual module -- a claim that cannot be substantiated, since all code has now been removed from the IChessU site. He characterizes the audio/voice module as a separate program that "has nothing in common with the original Jin (it is even written in a different computer language!). What if we integrated into Jin a Microsoft Word button -- would Mr. Maryanovsky then claim that we should publish the Microsoft source code as well?"

In answer to the claim that the copyright notice is not preserved, Rabinovitch writes, "We never tried to hide the fact that our client is based on the Jin code ... There is an appropriate notice in the Download Client page. The notice clearly states that the IChessU software application includes Jin client for chess servers, third party software under the GPL, including links to the place where the Jin source code was taken, and the GNU General Public License Web site and address."

Rabinovitch's only reply to the claim that the posted screen shots are a copyright violation is to quote a statement on Slashdot in which Maryanovsky mentions that, if the claim is upheld, it would help him to recover legal costs. He does not comment on the issue of using a non-compatible license.

"We believe that IChessU stands in line with all GPL requirements, both legal and moral," Rabinovitch writes. Observing that the case seems to have become "personal" for Maryanovsky, he describes the case as "ridiculous" and "a blackmail strategy."

The current status

At this point, Maryanovsky says that he would "be willing to consider a settlement plus apology if one was offered." Part of this attitude is undoubtedly due to the fact that the case is currently indefinitely delayed.

Klinger filed the suit under the short proceedings option. According to Klinger, under Israeli law, short proceedings are "an option to sue for damages easier in cases where there is little defense or factual disputes, and where the case is clear and cut already -- since the damages are statutory, there is no dispute on the amount to be paid." However, if the defendant can demonstrate a reasonable defense, the case proceeds like any other.

Ordinarily, the main advantage of a short proceeding is that, if no defense is submitted, judgment is delivered within 30 days of the defendant being served notice. However, in this case, the strategy has backfired because Rabinovitch is apparently no longer in Israel.

According to Klinger, Rabinovitch has "fled to Canada." Klinger adds, "We shall do the best of our efforts to serve him either there or when he gets back to Israel." Rabinovitch would not specify his exact location, but says that he and his wife moved for employment and family reasons.

(Thanks to Kripken for providing translations of the Hebrew documents in the case.)

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, and IT Manager's Journal.


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