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How Far Should GPL Enforcement Go? 432

Posted by timothy
from the lo-unto-the-ends-of-the-earth dept.
itwbennett writes "The debate over enforcement of the GPL flared up again this week when Red Hat kernel developer Matthew Garrett wrote in a blog post that Sony is looking to rewrite BusyBox to sidestep the GPL. Which is a perfectly legal undertaking. But it raises the question: 'Is there social pressure within the Linux kernel community to not undertake GPL compliance action?' writes blogger Brian Proffitt. 'This may not be nefarious: maybe people just would rather not bother with enforcing compliance. Better, they may argue, to just let the violation go and get on with developing better code.'"
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How Far Should GPL Enforcement Go?

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  • by inode_buddha (576844) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:18PM (#38908721) Journal

    I think GPL enforcement sould go just as far as everyone else. It should go as far as copyright law allows and as far as the copyright lobby goes.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:19PM (#38908725)

    Slashdot on piracy: "Abolish all copyrights! Copying isn't theft! Everyone is entitled to everything!"
    Slashdot on the GPL: "Gee whiz, the GPL copyright license protects this code. Down with leeching violators! Protect against GPL theft!"

  • So basically... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Millennium (2451) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:30PM (#38908871) Homepage

    It seems to me as though this is less about BusyBox per se, and more about enabling companies to steal code from other GPL'd projects without having to worry about the threat of the BusyBox folks calling them out on their wrongdoing.

    Forgive me if I can't think of any word other than "scum" at the moment.

  • by TaoPhoenix (980487) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:37PM (#38908977) Journal

    I second this.

    "Hi there. Nice GPL copyright-backed code you got there, that you're violating the license on. It would be a shame if you had to pay $375,000 per Copyrighted Work, aka each file in the 50,000 file package. The Choice Is Yours."

    Come on guys, if they're going to abuse copyright law, abuse it back, preferably with a big gun case that sets precedent. "No, you don't get to "withdraw your case. You get to pay me X BILLION dollars! Or - your choice - you can go fix it in Congress so that copyright damages are back down to $20 per work, like it should be."

  • by ad454 (325846) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:37PM (#38908981)

    There is a huge difference between copyright enforcement against individuals in the context of personal use, and organizations in the context of earning signifigant revenue.

    Most people including those on Slashdot, do not think it is reasonable to sell a pirated DVD movie on a street corner for profit, but consider it okay to download that same movie for media shifting for personal viewing.

    Sony should be applauded for making their own BusyBox alternative, rather than violate the GPL. Hopefully it will be released as opensource with a different licence, for those that want an alternative choice. Adding more choice is a good thing!

  • by Dahamma (304068) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:40PM (#38909055)

    Never understood why people thought getting money for your work was a bad idea...

  • by Daniel Phillips (238627) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:41PM (#38909061)

    But I'm not sure I understand the argument that is being made here. If Sony is really trying to "rewrite Busybox" -- which makes it sound like they're going to look at the Busybox code and write a new version that does the same thing in a different way -- then surely that's a derivative work of Busybox and it's a copyright violation.

    Is that really considered a derivative work just because they can see the source? Genuinely curious here.

    It can be. That is why cloning a library under an incompatible license typically requires an expensive "clean room" engineering process. Of course, Sony holding to their well known high moral and ethical standards, would never think of playing fast and loose with this, would they? And of course we would never notice if they cut a few corners to save cost, would we?

  • by dougmc (70836) <dougmc+slashdot@frenzied.us> on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:43PM (#38909091) Homepage

    If Sony is planning to do a clean-room re-engineering of Busybox -- what's wrong with that? Isn't that essentially what Linux kernel developers have done for all kinds of devices? Again, how is that "violating licenses with impunity"?

    I'm with you.

    If they really wanted to be fancy about it, they could do the same thing the BIOS cloners did -- have some people write up documentation on what Busybox does, and other people write the clone. But really, the first part is easy -- just decide which commands must be implemented and which flags, and let somebody write it. For bonus points, all people involved certify that they've never looked at the source of Busybox, or perhaps never explicitly used it at all.

    If they do this (and it sounds like it's their plan) ... I don't see where there's any room to enforce the GPL at all, not with regard to this Busybox clone anyways. All they could do is try to be even more picky about other packages, perhaps trying to step up enforcement of Busybox usage (not a clone, not yet) now.

    While I hate rooting for the bad guy, I think Sony has the right idea. (Though I'm sort of surprised that more embedded device makers haven't gone with one of the BSDs rather than Linux simply to avoid the GPL.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:45PM (#38909117)

    For several hundred years, and probably before then, there has been a struggle between individuals who strive for the possibility of social segregation and the perpetuation of (their) wealth, and individuals who strive for, effectively, a vision of communal merging of humankind. The former represented by a collection of mythologies related to social darwinism, self-sufficiency, republicanism, individual property rights and free will, and the latter represented by a collection of mythologies related to equality, communalism, various forms of group or shared property, determinism and removal of all mental barriers that distinguish between groups of people (either on a national/racial or international/global/humankind basis).

    Ideologies relating to both of these have been pervasive through the world and there are untold millions who lean in either direction. It's no surprise that you find plenty of people who sympathise either way.

    It's also no coincidence that the terminology chosen was specifically "CopyLeft", representing effectively and in principle shared and communal property, as an alternative to "CopyRight", effectively individual, withheld and segregated property.

    Consider the fact that if all property, assets and reality was virtual, and we lived in a completely software-engineered world (a la The Matrix), a world governed by GPL v3 / lack of copyrights would be one where all property would be communal. This because the integration and interoperability of software would eventually force through a completely communal state, and because 'private' property could be raided and distributed at will.

    GPL v2 is an intermediary step, where communal property is effectively a voluntary or accidental movement.

    This is also why there won't ever be a GPL version beyond 3. 3 is the end point. 2 is a philosophical difference. But the goal was obviously always 3, because if you ever develop 3, then it's clear that you have been intending to do so from the very beginning.

    This is also why GPL enforcement is a contentious issue. There is a perception effectively of power balance, where "power creates counterpower". The more the FSF seeks to take strong action against GPL v3 violators, the more people _who are not philosophically completely sold on the idea of communal property_ will form a counter-power and avoid GPL v3. GPL v3 has seen limited uptake, most likely for this reason, because people instinctively avoid what is effectively a viral project to communalise all digital architecture. To pursue the highest profile cases would effectively force a philosophical end game at a legal and political level, which they most likely don't see as productive at this point.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:45PM (#38909123)

    I hear the no overlap argument all the time. When 99% of the posts are pro-piracy and 99% of the posts are anti-GPL violation, one should start to suspect that that argument is 99% bullshit.

  • Stupid question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by slimjim8094 (941042) <slashdot3NO@SPAMjustconnected.net> on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:47PM (#38909167)

    The implication is clearly that we (as a community) shouldn't discourage people from using OSS code, or they'd start rewriting it to "get around" it.

    That's the entire argument for the GPL. Basically, if some simple conditions aren't met, you don't get to take advantage of all the work that's been put into it. The idea being that you'd rather they not use your code at all if they're going to be dicks about it.

    Sony, for reasons I don't quite understand but are entirely up to them, seems unhappy about putting the publicly-available-and-not-competitively-relevant source code on their website. More power to them, but the tradeoff is spending a bunch of time rewriting software that already exists and works fine. More power to them.

    When I license my code under the GPL, I realize that the odds of its reuse are somewhat smaller. But that's fine, since I'd rather that somebody saving time by building off my work makes their source available (to me, and everybody else). If they don't want to do that, I don't want to save them the trouble of having to write it themselves.

    The more interesting story here is that Sony's got it in its head that it'll be cheaper to rewrite Busybox than continue to have links to it. Not sure how they figured it.

  • by LateArthurDent (1403947) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @07:09PM (#38909467)

    Self defense by doing exactly what you criticize is moronic. It's the we need nukes because they have them mentality.

    What's wrong with that mentality? MAD works and is, in fact, the only thing that does.

  • Re:Execution (Score:3, Insightful)

    by AdrianKemp (1988748) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @07:17PM (#38909551)

    It's a matter of the (L)GPL being a shitty license for corporate use. If they wish to use the code they are under restrictions that can mean big problems if they are even accidentally violated.

    Why *wouldn't* they put the time into rewriting it in house? It's pretty easy when you're essentially transcribing source code. then they can freely change it without sharing, without worrying about a lacky somewhere forgetting to host the code, etc. etc.

    The GPL is a great hobbyist license but it's a pain in the ass at the corporate level, especially when you aren't really a software firm.

  • by Gadget_Guy (627405) * on Thursday February 02, 2012 @07:20PM (#38909601)

    They'll use the Linux kernel because the Linux kernel community doesn't bother with GPL enforcement.

    The big difference is that their custom code that they would want to keep private would most likely be linked into Busybox and not the Linux kernel. This means that they might be quite happy to give out the source code to a mostly unmodified Linux (thus complying with GPL) while still keeping all their secrets by not having to disclose their modifications to busybox.

    Making claims that writing their own replacement for busybox means that they will violate the GPL in other ways is the same kind of FUD as when Sony says that jailbreaking a device means you are a pirate, or when Microsoft says that GPL is a cancer. It would be the same as if Microsoft tried to claim that people using Wine did so to pirate Windows software.

    The more childish response to anybody complaining about using GPL software in a commercial environment is "if you don't like it, write your own software". Well, that is exactly what Sony want to do. What amazes me is how long it took for anyone to do this. By making a non-GPL version, companies have a choice when creating new products. Now all they need is for someone to develop an alternative to Linux and release it under the BSD license. Now if only we could think of a name for such a project...

  • by GauteL (29207) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @07:24PM (#38909655)

    If Sony is really trying to "rewrite Busybox" -- which makes it sound like they're going to look at the Busybox code and write a new version that does the same thing in a different way -- then surely that's a derivative work of Busybox and it's a copyright violation.

    No. Being "inspired" by other code is not copyright violation. Clean room implementations are about making your intentions clear and removing doubt.

    Two programmers may well write similar code because they share similar views or education and copyright violations can be hard to decide upon in court. If you're writing a replacement for something else it becomes particularly important to remove doubt and avoid unnecessary litigation.

  • Re:Execution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Githaron (2462596) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @07:40PM (#38909839)
    I was thought the GPL was supposed to prevent businesses from exploiting the hard work of volunteers trying to make open software. If a business wants to reimplement a whole piece of software from scratch, I see no reason why we should stop them. Nor the reverse. If the community wants to reimplement software so that there is a open version out there, I don't think businesses should be allowed to interfere. Now, if a business wants to take the GPL'ed software, reimplement part of it and then close the whole thing, now there is an issue.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:14PM (#38910139)

    I forget who started it (maybe it was microsoft) but as far as licence enforcement goes, the GPL is something akin to code communism, where everyone must share or everyone must stealthly rip off each other. Everyone is a potential secret police.
    BSD licence on the other hand is just one step down from anarchy. It's Capitalism, if you can make a profit with it, do it. You just have to give credit, and you can't sue anyone for using it, nor can you sue the developers for making a crappy product.

    All and all, it's better to release GPL if you want MANY DEVELOPERS as possible, regardless of the value of the whole product, so things like the Linux Kernel, Gnome, KDE, etc fit better with GPL licences, because if there were 200 separate forks of it, it would be a pain in the ass to develop for.

    If you want as many USERS as possible, you ship with the BSD licence. So end-user "packaged" products that you don't develop on top of, like Open Office, TheGimp, Firefox, Chrome, and many unix utilities like OpenSSH and rSync, are better off as BSD.

    There is a fuzzy middle ground, and this is where all the bitchfights show up. Proprietary hardware with OSS software. Part of the reason the hardware is cheap is because they don't develop much in-house software, but at the same time, people can copy their hardware product with impunity if they release all the source code (see the Linksys WRT54G) of the device, but sometimes this is a good thing, as the greater developer community can produce a better product (see Tomato firmware, DDWRT, etc)

    In an ideal world, most of this software would simply be licensed as BSD if the software is being shipped as part of an "endpoint" hardware device that the hardware vendor is not going to sub-licence the software to other vendors. GPL is about control, where as BSD is about freedom. If the device is not "endpoint" (endpoint devices being things like PoE Video cameras, and other ethernet or USB connected devices where the device only transmits or receives to a server) then all the necessary code required to rebuild the operating system and package the firmware should be released. These are what I'd call "access point" devices, so Wireless AP's, routers, hard drives which have multiple devices or users should be GPL. Because the devices need to work until the hardware fails, and we know software standards change over time.

  • Re:Execution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by serviscope_minor (664417) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:27PM (#38910261) Journal

    It really gets absurd in the cases where you have 100,000 lines of code that's your own but including 2 lines of GPL code means you have to give away your code as it's a derivative work.

    Why do people always blame the GPL for this, not copyright law? Is it equally absurd that including any proprietary stuff that you don't have a license for means that you have to stop using that proprietary code or buy a license? Same with the GPL code: stop using it or buy a license (i.e. by giving away your code).

  • Re:Execution (Score:4, Insightful)

    by serviscope_minor (664417) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:59PM (#38910579) Journal

    Because the FSF doesn't put in exceptions for this, they're perfectly happy with this sort of status quo.

    Why should they? If the two lines are so important that you can't write them yourself, then your product is a derivative work and you should pay for the license. If they're not that important then rewrite them.

    They probably know how absurd it is that only 2 lines can screw up someone else's code but they'll live with it happily.

    I've only ever heard this claim made in internet commentary.

  • Re:Execution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nursie (632944) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @09:44PM (#38910889)

    It's a matter of the (L)GPL being a shitty license for corporate use. If they wish to use the code they are under restrictions that can mean big problems if they are even accidentally violated.

    This is pretty much pure FUD.

    If they "accidentally" violate a commercial license then they could be on the hook for millions of dollars. With the GPL the choice is generally to distribute the source or stop distributing. Hell, even with the recent "aggressive" enforcement, the only really onerous bit is paying $5k per time to have future FOSS projects vetted. Compared to settling a lawsuit with a commercial vendor, it's peanuts.

    Why *wouldn't* they put the time into rewriting it in house? It's pretty easy when you're essentially transcribing source code.

    If they're transcribing source code then they've absolutely within the bounds of derivative work and will fall foul of copyright law.

    The GPL is a great hobbyist license but it's a pain in the ass at the corporate level, especially when you aren't really a software firm.

    It's less onerous that many commercial licenses. The problem comes from the lax attitude towards it. If people further down your supply chain were including commercial code or libraries without the proper license compliance then things would be worse.

  • by Kjella (173770) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @11:45PM (#38911599) Homepage

    There's nothing honorable or applause worthy in that.

    How often have you heard "If you don't like it, write it yourself" or something to that effect here on Slashdot? Assuming they do so without deriving from the Busybox code, what's not honorable about that? It is far more honorable than every company that has tried to weasel their way around the GPL, either in spirit or letter. Of course the OSS community would like them to continue contributing to open source so I wouldn't expect applause, but there's no dishonor in abstaining.

  • Re:Execution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by muuh-gnu (894733) on Friday February 03, 2012 @07:26AM (#38913335)

    > It really gets absurd in the cases where you have 100,000 lines of code that's your own but including 2 lines of GPL code means you have to give away your code as it's a derivative work.

    It is really absurd when you want to take code somebody else has written with the intent to make it freely redistributable, and want to change its licence to make it not freely redistributable with the intent to be able to sue users who dare to redistribute what was once free code when you took it.

    Works under the GPL are not intended to become everybody's free code library. They are specifically intended as an enrichment only for "is free, stays free" code. There is a philosophy of freedom attached to it. If you do not share this philosophy of freedom, the code is not available for you.

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