Free software group files copyright lawsuits

Battle over BusyBox includes mid-call hangups, conflicting claims

The Software Freedom Law Center, an organization focused on protecting open-source and free software, has filed copyright lawsuits against two U.S. companies, alleging that they are redistributing software in violation of the GNU GPL (General Public License).

The SFLC filed lawsuits Monday on behalf of the developers of BusyBox against High-Gain Antennas of Parker, Colorado, and Xterasys of City of Industry, California. The lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, allege that the companies are distributing BusyBox illegally, without meeting the GPL requirement of providing access to the source code of their implementation.

BusyBox, available since November 1999, is a lightweight set of standard Unix utilities commonly used in embedded systems licensed under GPL version 2. The two companies are distributing "BusyBox, or a modified version of BusyBox that is substantially similar to BusyBox," the lawsuits allege. The lawsuits ask the court to give the BusyBox developers the profits from that software, plus other damages.

But Richard Bruckner, CEO of High-Gain Antennas, said the SFLC is mistaken about the GPL violation. The company, which makes wireless broadband antennas and related products, uses firmware from a company called Edimax, not BusyBox, and makes the source code available, at the request of customers, he said.

Bruckner said he tried to explain the situation in a conference call with SFLC officials but was hung up on. During that first conversation SFLC was "already asking for money," he said. "What they need to do is get their act together and read the source code."

If the SFLC doesn't end its threats, High-Gain Antennas may file a countersuit, Bruckner added.

But Dan Ravicher, SFLC's legal director, said the organization has tried to work with both companies and has not gotten adequate responses. The two sides may still be able to settle the lawsuits out of court, he said.

"There is a hope, but since neither defendant wanted to resolve the matter privately previously, we'll have to see if they want to do so now," he said. "In the end, we can hope to settle all we want, but if the defendants don't want to do so, we can't force them to. All we can do is ask the court to force the defendants to comply with the law."

Ravicher also said he's confident in the lawsuits. "The evidence we collected during our investigation was sufficient for us to form a basis for our belief that they are distributing BusyBox and are not doing so in compliance with the GPL," he said.

If either case filed is heard before a judge, it would be the first time that a GPL infringement lawsuit has gone to trial in the U.S.

Officials from Xterasys weren't available to comment on the lawsuit against their company.

These are the second and third lawsuits the SFLC has filed on behalf of BusyBox developers Erik Andersen and Rob Landley. The first lawsuit, against Monsoon Multimedia, was settled out of court Oct. 30, with Monsoon agreeing to fix the violation and pay Andersen and Landley an undisclosed sum.

"We let companies do what they like with BusyBox on their hardware, and what we asked in return was that they let us reproduce what they've done with BusyBox on our hardware," Landley said in a statement. "That's the deal embodied in the GPL."

The SFLC assists nonprofit open-source and free software projects. Its chairman is Eben Moglen, long-time general counsel to the Free Software Foundation.

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