Dec 14

Deja vu.  The feeling of having been here before.

On December 11, the Free Software Foundation filed a complaint against Cisco Systems, claiming copyright infringement related to several Linksys wireless routers.  The foundation alleged that “in the course of distributing various products under the Linksys brand, Cisco has violated the licenses of many programs on which the FSF holds copyrights including GNU GCC, Binutils, Wget, Debuger, Readline, Parted, and the C library.”  The foundation also said that, “Cisco has denied its users their right to share and modify the software as a result.”

The FSF has requested an injunction be issued against Cisco and asked that damages and litigation costs be awarded.  The suit covers several popular Linksys routers.

Brett Smith, FSF compliance and licensing engineer, wrote in his blog, that the FSF had been working with Cisco since 2003, but despite Cisco’s efforts, “during this entire time, Cisco has never been in compliance with our licenses…”

In a statement, Cisco said: “Cisco is a strong supporter of open source software.  Cisco takes its open source obligations seriously and is disappointed that a suit has been filed by the Free Software Foundation related to our work with them in our Linksys division.”

So, the FSF has decided that Cisco wasn’t moving fast enough in insuring they are in compliance with the licenses that came with the open source they are using.  I don’t know how this will play out, but it points to the legal dangers of leveraging open source without also making sure that all the license obligations are fulfilled.

It sounds like the FSF is especially concerned about the GPL redistribution obligation, where all modifications to the open source, the original open source, as well as any software that is “based on” the GPL open source must be provided as open source under the GPL license.

For many commercial entities, this particular provision is the one that proves unacceptable, because it risks forcing the commercial entity to make what they consider their intellectual property into freely available open source.  For these commercial entities, it behooves them to audit their software, to identify the GPL licensed open source, and to clearly identify their legal risks with relation to that GPL licensed open source.

For example, here are some typical options if the commercial entitiy finds GPL licensed open source inside its commercial software:

1. Completely remove that GPL licensed open source and replace it with proprietary software

2. Completely remove that GPL licensed open source and replace it with other open source that has a more commercially friendly license

3. Completely remove the GPL licensed open source and ask the customer to get that open source themselves.  This is not a practical option for consumer focused products, but can sometimes work in the business to business market.

3. Isolate that GPL licensed open source so none of your other proprietary IP is “based on” the GPL licensed open source.  This is usually interpreted as, “not linked to”, ie, your proprietary IP should not be linked to the GPL licensed open source.  In this option, you still need to redistribute the modifications to the open source and the original open source.

4. If the GPL licensed open source also has a commercial license, obtain the commercial license.  This is usually an expensive option but is available in some cases.

At Source Auditor, our audits provide a quick and accurate way to identify the GPL licensed open source present inside your commercial source code, as well as recommended options to remove them if the provisions are deemed unacceptable.