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Android GPL infringement allegations questioned

Mar 23, 2011 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

A growing number of Linux insiders have said that allegations about Google violating GPL licensing related to its use of Linux header files in Android are incorrect, with Linus Torvalds saying the claims “seem bogus.” Meanwhile, it has been reported that the chief legal scholar making the claims had formerly represented Microsoft, leading some to hint at a Redmond FUD ploy.

Linux creator Linus Torvalds and others have disputed claims by open source legal experts that Google is violating GPL's "copyleft" provisions in Android. As argued by Brown Rudnick partner Edward J. Naughton and echoed by NoSoftwarePatents campaign founder Florian Mueller, Android violates open source GPLv2 licensing regarding "derivative works."

Specifically, the Bionic library that links Linux with Android's other components library uses "cleansed" Linux header files in a way that would violate the GPLv2 license that governs the Linux kernel sitting at Android's core, say Mueller and Naughton. 

Shortly after the story emerged, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, writing on ZDNET, questioned the validity of the claims. He also quoted Eben Moglen (right), founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), as saying, "I would say that the issue is a little less complex and a little less dire than it might seem on first acquaintance, while the facts are not quite as simple and therefore the narrative not quite as compelling as one might be led to believe."

This week, IT World's Brian Proffitt quoted Linus Torvalds as saying of Naughton's claim, "It seems totally bogus. We've always made it very clear that the kernel system call interfaces do not in any way result in a derived work as per the GPL." 

Torvalds (pictured at left) is further quoted as saying the claims were from "somebody politically motivated or motivated by some need of attention." And he was said to have added: "If it's some desperate cry for attention by somebody, I just wish those people would release their own sex tapes or something, rather than drag the Linux kernel into their sordid world."

The latter comments were apparently in response to a story posted on Mar. 18 in NetworkWorld by Linux kernel insider Joe Brockmeier, claiming that Naughton covered up the fact that he had previously offered legal representation to Microsoft. His bio was apparently changed this month "to specifically retract Microsoft," writes Brockmeier.

Vaughan-Nichols followed up on Mar. 22 with further quotes from legal experts questioning Naughton's claims. He went on to hint that the whole dust-up might be just another example of Microsoft-driven fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) regarding Linux and Android. (Some of this history was described in our coverage yesterday of Microsoft's lawsuit against Barnes & Noble for alleged Android patent violations in the Nook e-reader.)

As noted in a Mar. 22 NetworkWorld sum-up by Jon Brodkin, Naughton's former work with Microsoft, "wouldn't disqualify Naughton from judging whether Android violates any copyright requirements." Indeed, Florian Mueller, who is not accused of any Redmond ties, went even further in arguing that Google's Android implementation could lead to legal trouble for Google. On the other hand, long-time experience with the Microsoft FUD machine certainly raises doubts.

Brodkin does, however, present additional backing for the notion that the Naughton claims "seem unlikely." Specifically, he cites a 2003 email by Free Software Foundation creator Richard Stallman that states that it is "not the FSF's view" that "including a header file always makes a derivative work." This would instead require a "substantial amount of code," Stallman added.

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