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Linksys GPL issues raise embedded concerns

Oct 14, 2003 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 89 views

Forbes Magazine has published an article called “Linux's Hit Men” which suggests that the Free Software Foundation's legal efforts to enforce the terms of the GPL could intimidate companies and dissuade them from embedding software licensed under the href=”/AT3206254740.html” target=”new”>GPL in their products. To gain greater insight into the situation, spoke with open source software licensing expert Bruce Perens, who talked about the Linksys case, GPL concerns in general and specific concerns related to embedded development, and the attitude of the open source developer community relative to GPL violations.

“This is not really Cisco's fault,” Perens explained. “The GPL violation did not originate at Cisco, or Linksys. An off-shore subcontractor supplied Linux as part of the device.”

“I decided to get involved with [the Linksys] case several weeks ago,” the former Debian project leader continued. “I did not want Cisco to be scared out of using Linux in future products. I tried to contact Cisco about this matter to offer my assistance.” But he was unable to interest anyone at Cisco in listening to what he wanted to say.

According to Perens, the problem originated with a subcontractor who designed a Linux-based product for Linksys, which was subsequently acquired by Cisco. “Subcontractors in general are not doing enough to inform clients about their obligations under the GPL,” Perens said, noting that the problem can be exacerbated when the subcontractor is small, or based off-shore.

Perens says embedded system developers can be especially susceptible to GPL violations. “Often, engineers at smaller companies are left to interpret the GPL, since they may not have lawyers who are conversant with software law as it is excercised in the United States. Contractors will think 'this is embedded, no one can change the source — so the GPL must not really apply to us.'”

Indeed, a recent study from Evans Data Corp. (EDC) found that evaluating the intellectual property risks of Linux in embedded projects fell to developers and engineers 34% of the time.

Perens says the Linksys case underscores the importance of large companies being careful when outsourcing free software development. But, he adds, “This is nothing new. [Disputes over software licenses] go on every day with proprietary software — but there, the stakes are so much larger.”

“If this were a Microsoft license violation,” Perens continues, “Cisco would be in huge hot water. This is very small in comparison. Violating commercial licenses often costs companies millions of dollars. We're just asking them to go forward following the GPL. We don't ask for money, just future compliance.”

“I just want this to be resolved peacefully,” reiterated Perens.

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