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Emerging Technologies BLOG

A New Wave Of GPL Enforcement? Samba and Linux kernel copyrightholders join the fight

Posted on Friday, Jun 29, 2012

BY Edward J. Naughton

Talk about unintended consequences: Rob Landley, a lead developer of BusyBox, announced that he was rewriting that program solely to disarm GPL enforcers. In response, several other copyright holders came forward to hand the enforcers some bigger and more effective weapons.

wrote not long ago about a lively debate among FOSS advocates about the strategies for GPL enforcement. It started when Landley, a lead plaintiff in many of the enforcement actions brought by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) and Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), spoke out about his disillusionment with the way those actions were handled. As Landley described it, the GPL “zealots” (his term, not mine) used relatively minor violations of GPLv2 and the threat of injunctions to unfairly leverage significant concessions and monetary payments from consumer products manufacturers.

Declaring “GPLv2 BusyBox . . . one of the most dangerous pieces of software you can ship,” Landley announced that he would rewrite BusyBox under a non-GPL, permissive license to “stop BusyBox from being used as a bludgeon against the world at large:”

The BusyBox license enforcement lawsuits were a HORRIBLE IDEA, I regret having started that ball rolling, I couldn’t stop it. I can only render it irrelevant with fresh development.

Landley has since released toybox as a non-GPL alternative to BusyBox. Proponents of GPL enforcement lashed back at Landley. Matt Garrett assailed him for creating a non-GPL alternative to BusyBox that will make it easier for others to violate the GPL. Bradley Kuhn, head of the SFC, accused Landley of engaging in an “anti-copyleft political ruse.” According to Kuhn, Landley is just a “copyleft opponent” who used a “sophisticated political strategy” to exacerbate “minor strategy disagreements among those who do GPL enforcement.” Kuhn and Harald Welte, whose gpl-violations.org enforces the GPL in Europe, vowed that GPL enforcement would continue, and even increase.

Without BusyBox in their arsenal, many thought that Kuhn’s and Welte’s enforcement efforts would grind to a halt. Garrett urged developers who held copyrights in Linux to come forward and take up the enforcement flag, and it appears that some have heeded the call. The Software Freedom Conservancy announced that seven Linux kernel copyright holders, including Garrett, asked the SFC to enforce their copyrights on their behalf. Kuhn expects other Linux developers to join the process. In addition, the Samba project also appointed the SFC to enforce GPL compliance on its behalf.

Kuhn and Garrett expect that GPL enforcement efforts can become more effective in targeting Android and other embedded systems by including Linux kernel copyrights. According to Garrett:

The kernel is the fundamental component of Linux-based devices. . . .Android has been designed to use as little GPLed code as possible, and what we’ve been seeing recently is that companies have been trying to get rid of even more GPLed components in order to reduce their obligations. Obtaining compliance is easier if you have copyright holders involved, and if the only GPLed component on a system is the kernel then that means getting kernel hackers involved.

Moreover, the addition of Samba copyrights now gives the SFC the power to address GPLv3 violations, since Samba is licensed under GPLv3 or later versions.

Landley tried to take the BusyBox club out of the SFC’s hands, but it seems that only allowed them to pick up two, much bigger, bludgeons. Blogs