The GPL Goes To Court

The GPL Goes To Court

Earlier today the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) filed the first ever copyright infringement lawsuit based on a(n alleged) violation of the GPL. Courts habitually scrutinize contracts for enforceability, and the GPL has never been tested by a court, so it's not a guarantee that the terms will hold up. (Disclaimer: I have some friends at SFLC, and I think they're quality people and good lawyers.)

The GPL, otherwise known as the GNU General Public License, allows people to copy, modify, and distribute licensed works only if they comply with the terms of the license, which require them to license their new code with the GPL and make it available to others to copy, modify, and distribute. Manufacturers of products incorporating GPL-licensed code have to make the source code public. The GPL uses copyright law to do this; any copying outside the scope of the license is copying without permission, i.e. infringement.

Monsoon Multimedia makes a Slingbox-like TV location-shifter, which incorporates a set of Unix utilities called BusyBox. BusyBox is licensed under the GPL, but Monsoon has kept the source code proprietary, while admitting that “much of the source is GPL and we should publish those sections which we have modified per the terms of GPL. A project is underway to pull this together.” (Hilariously, in the same post, Monsoon accuses forum users of violating its own EULA by reverse-engineering the code, which it is required by the GPL to make available for just such tinkering!)

If the facts alleged by SFLC are true, this is a pretty clear-cut case of GPL violation. The real question is how a court will react to an entity using copyright law to effectively limit the ability of downstream recipients to control copyright to derivative works.

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Shalbatana

I recently went to use a picture that was on wikimedia. The author posted with the picture, and sent me a direct email saying I was free to use, distribute and modify his drawing, and as far as he was concerned, I didn't need to credit him (which I was going to do anyway).

Unfortunately on Wikimedia, it was posted under the GNU Free Documentation License. Well, the license seems to have more restrictions than the photo itself. Including that I would have to include the (extremly lengthy) license itself, and if I read it right, a physical copy of the license and image mod history, since I was using it as part of cover art & printing more than 100 copies.
Finally, I'd have to make my version public for others to use. No problem there, I thought. Only Wikimedia's terms of use states specifically that one is not allowed to post derivitives of other people's works on its site. At that point I gave up.

what was learned:
1) make sure you use the proper license for the proper work (GNU FDL was created mainly for software, which is the only instance some of these rules would make sense)...and...

2) Is a creative commons license really doing it's job if it is more of an issue than the content its supposed to protect? I'd rather maintain my rights personally, and just give permission to anyone that comes along.

I hope the GPL is written better.

p.s. I still need a lawyer to intrepret even the "public use" licenses. That's defeating part of the purpose. How many people distribute under GPL and have even actually read it? Very few I'm sure.

"Pick a distribution license" - a good idea for a MaxPC How to article.

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XRolando

Haven't there been GPL violation lawsuits before in Germany and other countries?

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XRolando

Haven't there been lawsuits in Germany and other countries before?

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