Cisco Becomes Infected by the GNU GPL


When it was first announced that the FSF had filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Cisco, some were predicting that this was going to be the definitive test of the power and legality of the GNU GPL. I was more sceptical:

I don't think the current alleged violations are an intentional attack on the GNU GPL – the “Big One” that everyone is waiting for to settle definitively its legal validity - but spring rather from a fundamental misunderstanding of what free software is about. Since it doesn't understand why people really care about being able to see the up-to-date source code, Cisco probably didn't think it would matter if it didn't comply fully with the GNU GPL licence. Once it realises that its ignorance and indifference is seriously damaging its reputation among a key constituency – that of developers – I predict it will soon comply with the licence, not least because it will cost a trivial amount of money and effort to do so.

And so it has turned out:

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Cisco Systems, Inc. are pleased to announce that they have reached a joint agreement.

Under the agreement, the FSF has agreed to dismiss its lawsuit against Cisco.

Cisco has agreed to appoint a Free Software Director for Linksys, a subsidiary of Cisco, to supervise Linksys' compliance with the requirements of free software licenses such as the GPL (the GNU General Public License). The Free Software Director will report periodically to the FSF regarding Linksys' compliance efforts. Cisco has further agreed to take certain steps to notify previous recipients of Linksys products containing FSF programs of their rights under the GPL and other applicable licenses, to publish a licensing notice on the Linksys website, and to provide additional notices in a separate publication. In addition, Cisco will continue to make the complete and corresponding source code for versions of FSF programs used with current Linksys products freely available on its website. Cisco will also make a monetary contribution to the FSF.

These are pretty standard terms for the FSF when it comes up against lack of compliance with the GNU GPL. The key point is that it is not in it for the money, as a blog post from FSF Compliance Engineer Brett Smith emphasises:

Whenever we talk about the work we do to handle violations, we say over and over again that getting compliance with the licenses is always our top priority. The reason this is so important is not only because it provides a goal for us to reach, but also because it gives us a clear guide to choosing our tactics. This is the first time we've had to go to court over a license violation. Before it gets to this point, we always try to work cooperatively with a violator: companies come into compliance faster that way. And when the violator admits that there's been a mistake and demonstrates they want to fix it, we take it as a sign that we can cooperative productively, instead of an opportunity to pounce.

Obtaining compliance might seem an obvious goal – after all, nobody likes their licences being ignored. But I think it actually goes much deeper than that.

Note that under the terms of the Cisco agreement (and other similar agreements), Cisco's subsidiary Linksys has agreed to appoint a Free Software Director, “to supervise Linksys' compliance with the requirements of free software licenses such as the GPL.” What the FSF has obtained is someone whose job is to ensure that the FSF orthodoxy is adhered to within Linksys – a pretty amazing result when you think about it.

The GNU GPL is often described rather negatively as “viral”, meaning that it “infects” code that it is mixed with. But the real infection is more subtle than this. It takes the form of getting software companies to agree to abide by the terms of the GNU GPL, and to appoint internal monitors to ensure that the company becomes a vector for GNU licensing. This is why the FSF is always happy to settle violation problems in this way: it is a far more powerful method of spreading the word about free software than simply obtaining damages. I'm sure that whenever companies violate the terms of the GNU GPL – whether wilfully or through oversight – the FSF will be only to happy to allow them to make amends by becoming “infected” in this way.

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