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TiVo frets over GPLv3, Torvalds still unconvinced

Jun 12, 2007 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 2 views

In its annual report filed with the SEC in April, PVR (personal video recorder) pioneer TiVo cautioned that, “If the currently proposed version of GPLv3 is widely adopted, we may be unable to incorporate future enhancements to the GNU/Linux operating system into our software, which could adversely affect our business.”

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TiVo's concerns revolve around an “anti-tivoization” provision in the final draft of the GNU General Public License Version 3 (GPLv3), which is nearing its end-of-June ship date.


The Free Software Foundation (FSF), which maintains the GPL licenses, is attempting to address the issue of “tivoization” of code covered by the GPL.

The problem arises from the fact that code in TiVo's popular Linux-powered DVRs performs signature checks in hardware to prevent anyone from modifying the device's software, and therefore its operation. Many device makers do not want customers to modify the operation of their devices, due to concerns over quality control, customer support, or legal liabilities.

Since a fundamental principle of the GPL is the right to read, modify, and re-use GPL'd code, the FSF reasons, such code-locking techniques fly in the face of the GPL's intent. Hence, the FSF has designed anti-tivoization language and included it in the final draft of the GPLv3.

Fortunately for TiVo, however, Linux founder Linus Torvalds currently sees little to recommend the controversial GPLv3 license for the Linux kernel, and does not consider tivoization to be a problem.

Torvalds's latest comments on the GPLv3

In an exchange on the Linux kernel mailing list (LKML), the Linux originator called GPLv2, the license that currently governs the Linux kernel and much other Linux-related software, “simply the better license,” while still suggesting two situations in which he might reconsider.

The first involves the Linux kernel adopting a dual license policy, which would be “technically quite hard” but at least within the realm of possibility — though unlikely — Torvalds's posts suggest.

As for the second, Torvalds writes, “If Sun really _is_ going to release OpenSolaris under GPLv3 [story], that _may_ be a good reason. I don't think the GPLv3 is as good a license as v2, but on the other hand, I'm pragmatic, and if we can avoid having two kernels with two different licenses and the friction that causes, I at least see the _reason_ for GPLv3. As it is, I don't really see a reason at all.”

In the LKML exchange, Torvalds also questions concerns regarding tivoization, “which I expressly think is ok,” he writes. Additionally he objects to “overblown” and “panicked worries” regarding the recent Novell/Microsoft deal.

GPL-related statements in TiVo's annual report

In its annual report filed with the SEC in April, Tivo, one of the first device vendors to adopt Linux, listed the GPLv3 alongside SCO among the potential risks to its business. The statement reads, in part:

We could be prevented from selling or developing our TiVo software if the GNU General Public License governing the GNU/Linux operating system and Linux kernel and similar licenses under which our product is developed and licensed is not enforceable or changed substantially.

Regarding pending “anti-tivoization” changes to the GPL in the final draft of the GPLv3, TiVo's annual report cautions:

In addition, the GNU Public License is subject to occasional revision. A proposal for changing the license from its current form (GPLv2) into a newer, more restrictive version called GPLv3 has been proposed and is currently undergoing community review. If the currently proposed version of GPLv3 is widely adopted, we may be unable to incorporate future enhancements to the GNU/Linux operating system into our software, which could adversely affect our business.

With respect to SCO's challenges to Linux, the annual report adds:

Our TiVo software includes parts of the Linux kernel and the GNU/Linux operating system. The Linux kernel and the GNU/Linux operating system have been developed and licensed under the GNU General Public License, version 2 and similar open source licenses. These licenses state that any program licensed under them may be liberally copied, modified, and distributed. The GNU General Public license is a subject of litigation in the case of The SCO Group, Inc. v. International Business Machines Corp., pending in the United States District Court for the District of Utah. SCO Group, Inc., or SCO, has publicly alleged that certain versions of the Linux kernel contain unauthorized UNIX code or derivative works of UNIX code. Uncertainty concerning SCO's allegations, regardless of their merit, could adversely affect our manufacturing and other customer and supplier relationships. It is possible that a court would hold these open source licenses to be unenforceable in that litigation or that someone could assert a claim for proprietary rights in our TiVo software that runs on a GNU/Linux-based operating system. Any ruling by a court that these licenses are not enforceable, or that GNU/Linux-based operating systems, or significant portions of them, may not be liberally copied, modified or distributed, would have the effect of preventing us from selling or developing our TiVo software and would adversely affect our business.

The complete text of Tivo's Form 10K filing can be found here.

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