September 22, 2023


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GPL legal battle: it’s a free software license and more contractual

3 min read

GPL legal battle: it’s a free software license and more contractual

GPL legal battle: it’s a free software license and more contractual.

The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), a nonprofit that promotes open source software and defends the General Public License (GPL) of free software, filed a lawsuit against TV maker Vizio on October 19, 2021.

It said it repeatedly failed to fulfill the basic requirements of the General Public License (GPL).

Recently, the California State Court announced its trial results:

The GNU General Public License (full name: GNU General Public License, GPL for short) is a widely used free software license. Under this license, the public enjoys the freedom to run and copy software; to distribute and disseminate software; to obtain freedom of the source code of software; and freedom to improve the software and to disseminate the improved versions to the public. This kind of circulation rules expressed by GPL is called copyleft, which means “contradictory” with the concept of copyright.

GPL legal battle: it's a free software license and more contractual

The lawsuit alleges that the SmartCast OS operating system on Vizio’s TVs is itself based on Linux, which is protected by GPLv2. In addition to the Linux kernel, SmartCast OS uses code based on GPL and LGPL protocols including U-Boot, bash, gawk, tar, Glibc and FFmpeg.

Vizio did not open source SmartCast OS after using the code based on the above protocol.

In fact, manufacturers like these are obligated to provide source code, including code for derivative works and installation instructions.

Without these, users would lose control of the software and be unable to independently fix bugs, add new features, and remove unnecessary features. That’s why the SFC is suing Vizio.

The ruling on May 13 this year showed that the GPL agreement is not just a free software license, but also has contractual effect .

Karen M. Sandler, executive director of the SFC, points out that many in the free and open source software (FOSS) legal community mistakenly believe that the GPL and other copyleft licenses function only as free software licenses.

“SFC looks forward to the opportunity to demonstrate in state courts our third-party beneficial rights to source code as defined by the GPL and related agreements,” Sandler added. “This claim is at the heart of the right to repair software, which allows users to exercise the right to copy, share, modify, and reinstall software on devices they purchase.”

The lawsuit did not seek financial compensation, and the SFC only asked the court that Vizio fulfill its obligations under the copyleft compliance requirements.

In past lawsuits, the plaintiff SFC has been the copyright holder of certain GPL code. In this case, the SFC wanted to demonstrate that not only the copyright holder, but also the consumer/user also had the right.

Therefore, SFC is suing Vizio as a buyer of the product. This approach makes it the first legal case to focus on the rights of individual consumers as third-party beneficiaries of the GPL.


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