Contrary to some public perceptions, the Free Software Foundation is not keen on litigating against those who fail to respect the terms of the GNU GPL. Here's what Eben Moglen, very much the legal brains behind the organisation, told me a decade ago:
About a dozen times a year, somebody does something [that] violates the GPL. Most of the time, they're doing so inadvertently, they haven't thought through what the requirements are. And I call them up and I say, “Look, you're violating the GPL. What you need to do is do this. Would you help us?”
And almost invariably, Moglen said, the answer was “yes” - the offending parties would be delighted to “help” fix that little problem by conforming to the licence and releasing the relevant code.
This conciliatory attitude helps explains why there have been very few situations where it has come anywhere near to a court case in terms of enforcing the GNU GPL. Until yesterday:
Best Buy, Samsung, Westinghouse, and JVC are among the 14 consumer electronics companies named in a copyright infringement lawsuit filed today in New York by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC).
There are two particularly interesting aspects of this move. The first, clearly, is that the SFLC, effectively the enforcer of the GNU GPL, has had enough, and decided to get serious against not one but 14 companies, some of them huge. That on its own would make the development important, because it suggests that the traditional conciliatory approach has failed on multiple occasions:
The SFLC confirmed BusyBox violations in nearly 20 separate products cited in the complaint and gave each defendant ample time to comply with the requirements of the license. “We try very hard to resolve these types of issues privately with companies, as we always prefer cooperation” said SFLC counsel Aaron Williamson. “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”.
But for me another aspect is even more significant: it demonstrates how free software is embedded – literally as well as metaphorically – in the entire range of consumer electronics. Among the items cited in the suit are Blu-ray players, HDTVs, webcams, media players, security systems, routers and modems. Here's a complete list [.pdf] of the offending products:
each Defendant has distributed BusyBox within firmware – embedded in electronic products or by itself – in a manner that does not comply with the License. Such firmware includes that for: BestBuy's Insignia NS-WBRDVD Blu-ray Disc Player; Samsung's LN52A650 and LA26A450 LCD HDTV's; Westinghouse's TX-52F480S LCD HDTV; JVC's LT-42P789 LCD HDTV and VN-C20U IP Network Camera; Western Digital's WDBABF0000NBK WD TV HD Media Player; Bosch's DVR4C Security System DVR; Phoebe Micro's Airlink101 AR670W and AR690W wireless routers and Airlink101 AICAP650W IP Motion Wireless Camera; Humax's iCord HD HDTV DVR; Comtrend's CT-5621 and NexusLink 5631/ 5631E ADSL2+ bonded modems; Dobbs-Stanford's Frame Jazz EyeZone B1080P-2 digital media player; Versa Tech's PS-730 ITS Gateway and VX-BW2250 weatherproof dual radio outdoor wireless access point; ZyXEL's P-663H-51 ADSL 2+ Bonded 4 Port Router; Astak's CM-818DVR4V security camera system with DVR and CM-04DE and CM-04DEV security system DVR devices; and, GCI's Cortex HDC-3000 digital music controller.
What this shows is how successful open source has been, even if that success is largely invisible to end-users. Given the breadth of possible applications of free software, and the obvious savings that adoption can provide, I suspect that it's now to be found in billions of consumer items. That's a pretty stunning achievement for what began as a crazy idea in Richard Stallman's hacker brain some 25 years ago.
The downside is that it's become so mainstream that it's beginning to hit up against big companies that think they can just ignore the details of the GPL licence, or that they can bully their way around it as they do elsewhere. As they will now learn, that isn't the case, and there's likely to be something of a transitional period where the big consumer electronic manufacturers digest the implications of this fact – learned, if necessary, the hard way in the courts - and begin to fulfil their obligations in return for the benefits they are beginning increasingly to appreciate.