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HP Releases Source Code For The Accidental Android TouchPad: Do GPL Obligations Arise Even From Unauthorized Distributions?

Posted on Friday, Feb 10, 2012


Back in the fall I wrote about the flap over the HP TouchPad tablets that were shipped with Android 2.2, or FroYo, installed.  The TouchPad was a WebOS-powered tablet, but somehow at least a few units had Android installed.  Most thought that these were test units that were never meant to be sold.

A developer who owns copyrights on files in the Linux kernel and who is leading a project to port Android to the TouchPad sent a demand that HP provide the source code for the modified version of the kernel that is embedded in these units.  HP declined, on the ground that it didn’t authorize the shipment of devices with Android embedded.

HP apparently relented to these demands and released the source for the Android kernel and for some other GPL components that it had modified.  The developer says that HP “was kind enough” to release this code because it “supports the [FOSS] community.”  True enough, I suppose, but consider that HP relented only after receiving a demand letter from a law firm that was sent on his behalf.

The developer is not entirely satisfied, moreover, because HP apparently has not released the source for a proprietary WiFi driver, presumably because the source reveals confidential information about HP’s hardware.  There’s been a long running debate in the Linux community as to whether closed source drivers can link to the kernel without becoming subject to the GPL.  The developer insists that the driver at issue here is a derivative work that is subject to the GPL because it is linked against at least 10 kernel files with “GPL ONLY” symbols.  HP is said to be investigating this claim.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I observed earlier that this situation highlights just how important it is to manage the supply chain for complex hardware and software projects.  HP’s decision to provide the source here likely will establish a precedent, as a practical matter if not a legal one, that even unauthorized distributions of GPL’d code trigger source disclosure obligations. Blogs