SFLC Takes on Consumer Electronics Companies: Will it Help?

by Ostatic Staff - Dec. 15, 2009

The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) is taking the gloves off. The SFLC has filed suit against 14 companies, alleging that each of the companies violates the GNU General Public License version 2 (GPLv2). According to the complaint and media release issued Monday, "nearly 20 separate products" ranging from Blu Ray DVD players to LCD TVs, contain BusyBox but the companies do not comply with the terms of the GPL.

Typically the SFLC resolves complaints of this nature without filing a lawsuit, but the media release indicates each of the named parties failed to "meaningfully respond" to the SFLC's requests to release code. The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court to be heard by Judge Shira A. Schindlin.

Though the SFLC's "aggressive" stance in going after 14 companies for GPL violations has been noted, the fact that the GPL is relatively untested in court hasn't been. If any of the cases make it through to a judgment, it will be the first time that the GPLv2 has been fully tested in a U.S. court. The GPLv2 has been successfully used to settle cases where companies are not in full compliance, but GPL enforcement hasn't gone all the way through a trial and verdict in a U.S. court.

One might think that companies would have learned to comply with the GPL by now. Despite a number of successful GPL enforcement actions by the SFLC and Harald Welte's GPL-Violations.org, the norm in the embedded space still seems to be non-compliance. GPL-Violations alone has finished more than 100 cases.

Perhaps the problem is that it hasn't been expensive enough for any company that has fallen out of compliance. While violating a proprietary license can cost a company big bucks, GPL enforcement usually consists of asking for the code to be released and costs to be covered. The complaint asks the court to award damages for "all profits derived from its unlawful acts," but it'd be tough to put a dollar amount on the profit derived from use of BusyBox alone.

The idea is to encourage companies to use GPL'ed code, but to do so as part of the larger community and contribute changes back in compliance with the license. Unfortunately, companies that are uninterested in the benefits of being part of the larger community seem to have little to lose the way GPL enforcement is currently done. The SFLC and other groups have to walk a fine line between enforcing the GPL and not discouraging use of GPL'ed code. Making an example of a company with a punitive award could have a negative effect on GPL adoption. But sending the message that violations aren't expensive doesn't seem to help either.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a longtime FOSS advocate, and currently works for Novell as the community manager for openSUSE. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist covering the open source beat for a number of publications, including Linux Magazine, Linux Weekly News, Linux.com, UnixReview.com, IBM developerWorks, and many others.