SFLC hammers GPL violators

Almost everyone uses Linux, thanks to its growing popularity in consumer electronics in everything from TVs to DVR (digital video recorders) to DVD recorders to you name it. Some companies, however, think that they can use Linux and open-source software for their products without releasing the source code or, in some cases, paying the creators. Wrong. The SFLC (Software Freedom Law Center) is lowering the boom on more than a dozen companies including Best Buy, Samsung, Westinghouse and JVC, all which have violated the GPL (GNU General Public License).

Bad news, guys: you can't get away with it. The SFLC announced that they were suing these companies because they had ripped off BusyBox, a popular collection of Linux/Unix utilities that is known as the "Swiss Army Knife" for embedded Linux. To be exact, these companies have been accused of using BusyBox illegally in such devices as "Best Buy's Insignia Blu Ray DVD Player, Samsung HDTVs, Westinghouse's 52-inch LCD Television, and more than a dozen other products that the defendants have continued to sell without the permission of the software's copyright holders." Specifically, the companies behind these, and almost 20 other products, aren't living up to the terms of the GPLv2, which states that anyone can view, modify, and use the program for free on the condition that they distribute the source code to customers.

In a statement, SFLC counsel Aaron Williamson said that "We try very hard to resolve these types of issues privately with companies, as we always prefer cooperation. We brought this suit as a last resort after each of these defendants ignored us or failed to meaningfully respond to our requests that they release the source code."

You'd think the electronics companies would know better by now. Since 2007, the SFLC has sued and won against six other companies for the exact same violation including Verizon and Cisco.

You don't need to be a legal whiz to figure this out. The basics of how the GPL work is pretty darn simple. If you use code that's based on it and you release the resulting program to the public, you must release your code to users under the same license. How hard is this? Even Microsoft gets that you have to respect the GPL, when they recently re-released a Windows 7 netbook installation utility program under the GPL.

The only thing that's new about this current case is that it's targeted 14 defendants (PDF link) instead of one or two. As Bradley M. Kuhn, the SFLC's technology director said in the press release. "As embedded computer systems become more commonplace in everyday consumer electronics and more companies recognize the zero-cost licensing of Free Software over proprietary alternatives, it is more important than ever for manufacturers to learn to comply with the GPL."

Yes, yes it is. Because as sure as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, the SFLC will win these cases, and these companies will have to pay for damages. And, to avoid all this, all the companies had to do was release their devices' modified source code under the GPL. Come on guys, it's really not that hard.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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