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11/1/2007
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First Lawsuit Over GPL Settled Before It Goes To Court

The Software Freedom Law Center accused Monsoon of holding back its Hava TV modifications of BusyBox from other developers, violating the terms of the GPL.

The Software Freedom Law Center has settled its first U.S. lawsuit to uphold the GPL license without going to court. The target of the suit, Monsoon Multimedia, on Tuesday agreed to appoint an open source compliance officer to monitor its use of GPL code.

"We are extremely pleased that they worked so hard and so fast to come into compliance," said Rob Landley, one of two independent developers for whom the suit was filed.

Landley and his partner, Erik Andersen, developed a set of lightweight Unix utilities, called BusyBox, used in embedded systems and issued under the GPL Version 2. Monsoon used BusyBox in its Hava TV devices that beam TV signals to nearby computers for display.

Landley and Andersen claimed Monsoon wasn't making its Hava TV modifications of BusyBox available to other developers, as required under the GPL. Columbia law professor and Software Freedom Law Center founder Eben Moglen filed a case on behalf of BusyBox in U. S. District Court in New York Sept. 19. It was settled out of court on Oct. 30.

The settlement included an undisclosed payment by Monsoon to BusyBox. Monsoon will publish the source code that it was previously offering for download in compiled form to its customers off its Web site. And it will attempt to contact prior customers to notify them they have a right under the GPL to receive the source code that reflects what's operating their Hava TV device.

"We are happy to put this behind us and move forward," said Graham Radstone, chairman and chief operating officer of Monsoon, in a prepared statement announcing the settlement.

Andersen said in the prepared statement that he was certain Monsoon was now "an upstanding member of the open source community."

The terms of GPLv2 were stiffened in GPLv3, which was issued June 29, to make it more difficult to modify GPL code and embed it in a consumer or other device without disclosing the changes. Richard Stallman, head of the Free Software Foundation, labeled the practice the "TiVo-ization" of free software after set-top box maker TiVo's use of GPL code in its devices. Stallman considered the practice a violation of the free software license, whether it was done to code issued under GPLv2 or GPLv3.

The Software Freedom Law Center's Moglen helped Stallman draft GPLv3, and its anti-Tivo-ization provision stirred a warm debate within the free software and open source communities. Linus Torvalds, lead developer of Linux, said adding restrictions to the GPL wasn't necessary and reflected an excessively legalistic approach to keeping source code available for open source developers.

In a June 20 e-mail discussion before GPLv3 became final, he wrote: "In a very real sense, the GPLv3 asks people to do things I personally would refuse to do. I put Linux on my kids' computers, and I limit their ability to upgrade it. Do I have that legal right? (I sure do, I'm their legal guardian), but the real point is that this is not about 'legality.' This is about 'morality.' The GPLv3 doesn't match what I think is morally where I want to be."

Many Linux developers, as pragmatic open source practitioners, want the developer to have maximum freedom to use code the way he or she sees fit, and believe the greatest progress will come about with a general freedom to use code the way the developer wants. They bristle at named restrictions and delineations on the developer's freedom.

The Free Software Foundation has sought to enforce and strengthen the GPL by including in the license things that can't be done with GPL code. The restrictions are needed as a means of fending off patent claims against free software and interlopers seeking to appropriate GPL code without sharing their changes and additions. The recently settled case indicates the foundation is willing to use legal means to back up its position.

Mogen's Software Freedom Law Center has been an ally of Stallman's Free Software Foundation. The center was founded to provide legal representation to nonprofit developers of free and open source software.

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