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The GPL Wins Again

It's Easy to Not Get Sued

  • August 6, 2010
  • By Sean Michael Kerner
Sean Michael Kerner
In December 2009, the Software Freedom Conservancy filed lawsuits against 14 consumer electronics vendors alleging that they were not in compliance with the GPL license. Of those 14 vendors, 13 have now either settled amicably or are in productive discussions toward a settlement.

In one case, consumer electronics vendor Westinghouse failed to comply, and a U.S. District Court has now ruled in a default judgment against it.

The open source GPL license is widely used and requires distributors to ensure that the code remains open and distributed with the products that use the code. Westinghouse includes the BusyBox GPL-licensed code as part of its HDTVs, and does not provide users with access to the GPL code. The court ruled that Westinghouse did not comply with its discovery obligations.

"I was glad Conservancy received the default judgment, but I was not surprised. I think the facts are quite clear," Bradley M. Kuhn, president of the Software Freedom Conservancy, told InternetNews.com. "Usually, anytime I do GPL enforcement for BusyBox the facts are never in dispute. The typical situation is that a firmware is distributed on the device that clearly contains BusyBox and no source nor offer for source code is included. So it was with Westinghouse."

The court is ordering Westinghouse to pay $90,000 in damages and to give the HDTVs that include the BusyBox code to the Conservancy. The Conservancy plans to donate the items to charity.

The GPL has some requirements around redistribution that can raise complications with non-compliance. BusyBox developers have previously settled with at least four other vendors over GPL issues.

"It's true that lack of understanding about how the GPL works is a very common confusion in GPL enforcement efforts," Kuhn said. "It's certainly possible that Westinghouse initially merely didn't understand their obligations. However, Conservancy and its lawyers at SFLC (Software Freedom Law Center) contacted Westinghouse before filing litigation and attempted to educate them, giving them lots of resources explaining what they needed to do to comply with GPL."

Kuhn noted that Westinghouse stopped responding to Conservancy and its lawyers, which is what led Conservancy to proceed with the litigation. He added that by the time the lawsuit was filed at the end of last year, Westinghouse had been given ample resources and education about its obligations under GPL.

Westinghouse was among a group of 14 consumers electronics vendors facing GPL litigation, a list that also included BestBuy, JVC and Samsung.

"As for the other defendants, Conservancy has either settled with them, or is in productive settlement discussions with them," Kuhn said. "Conservancy's and BusyBox's primary goal is always to achieve compliance on all GPLed, LGPLed, and other FLOSS-licensed software in the relevant distributions, and that's what we make our top priority in both litigation and non-litigation enforcement efforts."

Though the GPL has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, Kuhn noted that legal action is not his preferred route for achieving compliance.

"It's very easy to comply with the GPL, and I am very friendly in my first contacts to open discussions about compliance," Kuhn said. "Conservancy only seeks a litigation route as a very last resort to get a company's attention when the ignore us."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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