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Most Android Tablets Fail At GPL Compliance 198

Posted by timothy
from the hey-man-those-are-just-like-rules dept.
polar_bear` writes "Red Hat's Matthew Garrett has been checking to see who's naughty and nice. Most Android tablet vendors? Naughty, naughty, naughty, when it comes to GPL compliance. In the current crop of Android tablets, most of the vendors flout the GPL and fail to ship source."
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Most Android Tablets Fail At GPL Compliance

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  • by Dogers (446369) on Friday December 31, 2010 @03:23AM (#34719692)

    Big name companies provide it (notable exception being Creative, but then they've not always been so hot at this anyway), small unknown Chinese companies don't.

    I'm surprised that Viewsonic only provides the source for 1 of its three tablets though.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday December 31, 2010 @03:50AM (#34719840) Journal
      The area that surprises me is the 'devices produced by small unknown Chinese companies; but rebadged and sold by large American/Japanese/etc. ones' niche.

      Given the number of obscure OEMs toiling away on designs based on what appear to be the same set of chipsets, you would expect that a large reseller would have its choice of OEMs, and strong ability to dictate terms. Further, you would expect that the respective legal departments of these re-badgers would absolutely flip out at the idea of incurring substantial risk of copyright infringement risk.

      The odds that Sylvania actually produced the hardware being marketed under their name are not huge; but Sylvania is a US-market brand of a pretty big Japanese electronics outfit. If anybody were to sue them about it, there could be serious money on the table.

      Coby Electronics Corporation, while it isn't exactly a luxury brand(seen by name in places like CVS pharmacy's electronics aisle, does some OEM work for Radio Shack), is a company with nontrivial size and US presence. Were I their lawyer, I'd be turning a cool shade of purple at the amount of liability we were racking up to score some tiny margins on skeezy wannabe android tablets to be sold to suckers at CVS.

      While FOSS guys tend to be nice about it, the penalties in the US for copyright infringement are downright draconian, and that niceness is wholly optional.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        these re-badgers would absolutely flip out at the idea of incurring substantial risk of copyright infringement risk.

        You need money to sue someone. FOSS idealists have none, and big companies with vested interest in FOSS software that could afford the legal costs know better than to hurt their own kind. That's why everybody and their dogs trample on the GPL with zero fear of legal actions.

        • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday December 31, 2010 @04:10AM (#34719944) Journal
          I suspect, percentage wise, it is fairly safe; but more than a few well-known names have been bitten for noncompliance with respect to busybox utilities... It's hardly a certainty, I'm just surprised that, given the likely bargaining power of the re-badger vs. the random throwaway OEM, that legal is signing off on even modest risk.
          • by Rakishi (759894) on Friday December 31, 2010 @04:29AM (#34720042)

            Hardly bitten, more like they got a mildly dirty look from a random stranger. Have there been any settlements or awards that were more than a slap on the wrist of the company? Any that in any way impacted their bottom line in even the smallest way?

            • by icebike (68054) on Friday December 31, 2010 @04:58AM (#34720136)

              For most, simply coming into compliance is all they are ever asked to do in court.

              Some busybox (etc) providers drag their heels on even that, but most simply hang it on their website in some obscure place and call it a day. Most of these devices are obsolete before anyone notices the missing source code.

              Its not hard to comply, its just that Joe Purchasing Agent has no clue he is supposed to do so when he buys a cheesy tablet from an OEM and changes nothing but the label on the back.

            • by dido (9125) <dido@@@imperium...ph> on Friday December 31, 2010 @05:24AM (#34720244)

              Ask Eben Moglen, chief legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation, how the GPL has been enforced [gnu.org] all these years.

              In approximately a decade of enforcing the GPL, I have never insisted on payment of damages to the Foundation for violation of the license, and I have rarely required public admission of wrongdoing. Our position has always been that compliance with the license, and security for future good behavior, are the most important goals. We have done everything to make it easy for violators to comply, and we have offered oblivion with respect to past faults.

              Enforcing the GPL, for the Free Software Foundation anyway, has never been about punishing the violators, as it tends to be with other copyright-related litigation, but more about getting people to comply with the license. In another speech [gnu.org], Moglen explains why there has never been a court test of the GPL, which is what you seem to be looking for:

              ...In order to defend yourself in a case in which you are infringing the freedom of free software, you have to be prepared to meet a call that I make reasonably often with my colleagues at the Foundation who are here tonight. That telephone call goes like this: "Mr. Potential Defendant, you are distributing my client's copyrighted work without permission. Please stop. And if you want to continue to distribute it, we'll help you to get back your distribution rights, which have terminated by your infringement, but you are going to have to do it the right way."

              At the moment that I make that call, the potential defendant's lawyer now has a choice. He can cooperate with us, or he can fight with us. And if he goes to court and fights with us, he will have a second choice before him. We will say to the judge, "Judge, Mr. Defendant has used our copyrighted work, copied it, modified it and distributed it without permission. Please make him stop."

              One thing that the defendant can say is, "You're right. I have no license." Defendants do not want to say that, because if they say that they lose. So defendants, when they envision to themselves what they will say in court, realize that what they will say is, "But Judge, I do have a license. It's this here document, the GNU GPL. General Public License," at which point, because I know the license reasonably well, and I'm aware in what respect he is breaking it, I will say, "Well, Judge, he had that license but he violated its terms and under Section 4 of it, when he violated its terms, it stopped working for him."

              But notice that in order to survive moment one in a lawsuit over free software, it is the defendant who must wave the GPL. It is his permission, his master key to a lawsuit that lasts longer than a nanosecond. This, quite simply, is the reason...that there has never been a court test of the GPL.

              Given this kind of legal bind, most defendants when pressed by competent GPL plaintiffs would rather comply with the license like they are supposed to than fight it out in court under those terms.

        • You need money to sue someone. FOSS idealists have none, and big companies with vested interest in FOSS software that could afford the legal costs know better than to hurt their own kind. That's why everybody and their dogs trample on the GPL with zero fear of legal actions.

          With GPL v.3, if the software used implements any patents and you got a patent license through the GPL, then a GPL violation is now both copyright infringement and patent infringement. So things could get very nasty. And the low fear of legal actions doesn't come from "FOSS idealists having no money", it comes from "FOSS idealists being nice and not pressing for maximum damages".

        • by Pikoro (844299)

          Or you just call Boss Hog and he'll call the judge and take care of it for ya'll.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        While FOSS guys tend to be nice about it, the penalties in the US for copyright infringement are downright draconian, and that niceness is wholly optional.

        It remains to be seen if some FOSS guy inclined to not be nice about it would actually win in court. So far there have been zero examples of such so their behavior is eminently logical, if distasteful.

      • by Fnkmaster (89084)

        As soon as we made Viewsonic aware of their obligations and got somebody halfway intelligent there involved (i.e. not just first line customer service people, though we got them to write up notes about the number of callers requesting GPL source code too), this went through marketing and legal, and they got source released within a matter of weeks for the G Tablet. You're right, nobody wants to sit on legal risk for products with slim margins in competitive markets.

        If you have a Coby or Sylvania device, ju

    • by Fnkmaster (89084) on Friday December 31, 2010 @11:36AM (#34721828)

      Speaking as one of the Viewsonic G Tablet kernel hackers who helped push for VS to release source and has since identified and helped fix several of the critical kernel bugs, it was a non-trivial business problem to get the code.

      Malata, the hardware OEM, is Chinese and thus not subject to US or European IP law regarding things like the GPL. Viewsonic did not develop the software in house, they contracted the whole Android packaging and UI job out to a startup called Tap N Tap based in Cambridge, MA. Tap N Tap was then constrained by the confidentiality agreements they had with Viewsonic. Viewsonic didn't really have any software team on board who understood the legal issues involved and their marketing guys had to help push everything through legal with the help of the Tap N Tap guys. Furthermore, the G Tablet is apparently distributed by a company called US Worldwide under a distribution agreement of some sort with Viewsonic - so not clear that Viewsonic ever even took delivery of a single tablet themselves.

      We used Twitter to nag Viewsonic about not having released the kernel source and keep the issue in the public eye. Once they got clearance, they got the source from Tap N Tap, and posted it on the website.

      This all just happened on December 24th. So Viewsonic is still most likely working on legal compliance issues for other tablets. I'm sure if people make formal requests for source and send some nagging reminders like we did for the G Tablet, they'll release any GPLed source too - they are making an effort at least, unlike many companies.

      But it did take about a month long organized effort from the XDA Developers forums, involving call-ins to customer service, emails to top executives, and twitter posts. Much of that was simply education of people at several layers of the company about their obligations - again, their company never even touched the source code so this probably never went through their own legal people until we pushed it to them.

      The result is we were able to merge up a bunch of critical kernel bug fixes from the main NVidia Tegra 2 source tree and we now have custom kernels that support a crap-ton of new features, along with custom ROMs. And we've gotten source for basically all the drivers too and we've started improving some of them.

      No, we don't have the full source for the Tap N Tap UI stuff since Android's UI layer is Apache licensed and there's no obligation for Tap N Tap to release that code, but it doesn't affect us too much. We have the full AOSP source, the NVidia source tree, and there are so many custom launchers and stuff to work with out there that we've got several awesome ROMs released now.

      I suspect there may be similar legal/logistical issues with the other Viewsonic tablets' source code. I don't know if enough people have even bought those tablets to care enough to request source code though - if you own one, make a request to Viewsonic. Heck, their Marketing VP has an account on the XDA Developer forums now, you can PM him there.

      Also - that list is a bit misleading. Since we have the Viewsonic G Tablet kernel source, we basically have all the drivers and kernel code for all the Malata devices now, including the ZPad. In fact, Viewsonic released some of the ZPad drivers that aren't even used in the G Tablet (like the first gen ZPad resistive touchscreen driver).

      Additionally, Advent has stated that they are working to release source code for the Vega which is apparently assembled by BYD but as far as we can tell, uses most of the same components and a very similar design to the Malata ZPad. I suspect we have nearly all the drivers and patches for that in our Viewsonic release too, but I'm sure their official kernel source will be out within a few weeks regardless.

      So yeah, there are still some legal issues, but at least with the Tegra 2 devices and with most of the mainstream Western vendors, they are working their way to compliance currently.

      • by compro01 (777531)

        Malata, the hardware OEM, is Chinese and thus not subject to US or European IP law regarding things like the GPL.

        The GPL's authority is based in copyright law and China is a signatory of the Berne convention (As well as the Universal Copyright Convention, the TRIPS agreement and the WIPO Copyright Treaty), so yes, they are subject to it. Just no one bothers to go after them about it.

  • Ship Source? (Score:4, Informative)

    by icebike (68054) on Friday December 31, 2010 @03:24AM (#34719696)

    They are Android. Google makes source available and the tablet vendors do too. There is no requirement to ship the source.

    • by jonbryce (703250)

      If you buy for example this
      http://www.next.co.uk/shopping/electric/computers/3/1?extra=sch&n=electric&pid=117-894&returnurl=%2Fsearch%2Fsearch%3Fp%3DQ%26lbc%3Dnext%26uid%3D808251970%26ts%3Dv8%26w%3Dtablet%26af%3D%26method%3Dand%26filter%3Dsubset%253a4201%26nxtv%3D000%26nxti%3D0%23117-894&bct=%26quot%3BTablet%26quot%3B [next.co.uk]
      You are entitled to be told it contains free software, and either be given a copy of the source, or be told where you can get a copy of it at no more than cost price at any time

      • My LG Android has a page in the setup application which lists the license of every binary and ends with the offer to provide the source. I would be interested in the contents of the corresponding page on this tablet.

    • Re:Ship Source? (Score:4, Informative)

      by mjg59 (864833) on Friday December 31, 2010 @03:49AM (#34719828) Homepage

      The Google reference kernel code doesn't contain the driver code for any of these tablets, and the vast majority of them are based on SoC platforms that don't exist at all in the Google code. The tablet vendors can't simply point at the Google repositories, they're obliged to either ship the source with the devices or provide a written offer to provide the source to any third party on request.

      • The Google reference kernel code doesn't contain the driver code for any of these tablets, and the vast majority of them are based on SoC platforms that don't exist at all in the Google code. The tablet vendors can't simply point at the Google repositories, they're obliged to either ship the source with the devices or provide a written offer to provide the source to any third party on request.

        No. they only have to provide source to their customers, not to any third party.

        • by mjg59 (864833) on Friday December 31, 2010 @04:02AM (#34719900) Homepage

          Quoting from the GPL v2 section 3(b):

          "Accompany it with a written offer, valid for at least three
          years, to give any third party, for a charge no more than your
          cost of physically performing source distribution, a complete
          machine-readable copy of the corresponding source code, to be
          distributed under the terms of Sections 1 and 2 above on a medium
          customarily used for software interchange"

          You don't have to choose that option - you can use 3(a) instead, but that means that the source has to be with the device when you sell it.

          • by perpenso (1613749)

            Quoting from the GPL v2 section 3(b):

            "Accompany it with a written offer, valid for at least three years, to give any third party...

            I think the GPL v3 6b says you only have to provide the source to someone who possesses the device containing the GPL'd code.

            "Convey the object code in, or embodied in, a physical product (including a physical distribution medium), accompanied by a written offer, valid for at least three years and valid for as long as you offer spare parts or customer support for that product model, to give anyone who possesses the object code ..."

            • by mjg59 (864833)

              Yes, but given that the kernel is under GPLv2 (not v2 or later), what GPLv3 says isn't terribly relevant...

              Even then, the written offer must be good for anyone who obtains the object code. I download a firmware image from your site? You're obliged to give me source on request. One of your customers downloads a firmware image and then gives it to me? The same applies.There's no point at which it's limited to your customers.

              • by tukang (1209392)
                Please correct me if I'm wrong: If a customer downloads a firmware image from my site, then yes, I'm obliged to provide the source to that customer. But my obligation is only to provide the source to those who get the binaries directly from me. If the customer turns around and gives you a copy of the firmware then *they* must provide you with the source - not me.
                • by Arlet (29997)

                  Technically correct, but it's much more practical to put the source code on a public HTTP or FTP server where anybody can get it. Any extra effort to only allow your own customers is a waste of time and money.

                • i think that would be covered by "...to give anyone who possesses the object code..."

                  if you distribute the object code, you're obligated to give it to ANYONE who posessess the object code, no matter how they obtained it.

                  that's what v3 of the GPL says.

                  the GPLv2 is even less limited in who you're obligated to give the source code to - that says "...to give any third party..."

                • by mjg59 (864833)

                  No. If you distribute under 3(b), then as long as I'm not distributing commercially I can distribute under 3(c) and pass on the written offer - which still leaves you responsible for providing the source.

      • Re:Ship Source? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by icebike (68054) on Friday December 31, 2010 @04:05AM (#34719916)

        Drivers are a debatable case.

        Some insist anything linked against the kernel libraries (making calls to the kernel) must be make source code available. But I do not believe this is the general consensus.

        • by mjg59 (864833)

          And by "drivers" here, I also mean "board setup code". I can guarantee you that the MSM code in the Google tree isn't going to know which gpio lines are connected to your tablet's LCD power control, even if the CPU happens to be the same one that was in the G1.

        • Re:Ship Source? (Score:4, Informative)

          by TheRaven64 (641858) on Friday December 31, 2010 @08:52AM (#34720890) Journal

          Some insist anything linked against the kernel libraries (making calls to the kernel) must be make source code available. But I do not believe this is the general consensus.

          It's more complex than that. Drivers do not have to be GPL'd, unless they are a derived work of the kernel. If they are not (e.g. the nVidia blob drivers), then they may be distributed under any license that you wish.

          The kernel, however, requires that anything linked to it be distributed under a GPL-compatible license. Any Linux kernel that links against things under a license that the GPL is incompatible with, is in violation of the GPL. The GPL, however, makes it clear that you do not require any license to use the code, so end users may download the Linux kernel and the nVidia drivers, link them together, and still be allowed to use the code.

          What they can't do is distribute the result. If you distribute the Linux kernel along with a GPL-incompatible driver, then you are in violation of the GPL. This means that you have no valid license to distribute the Linux kernel (unless you acquire one from all of the Linux copyright holders), and so every time you copy the kernel you are committing copyright infringement. Shipping a device with binary-only drivers and a Linux kernel is almost certainly wilful infringement, and carries a statutory penalty of up to $150K in the USA. It's probably cheaper to use FreeBSD...

          • by pjt33 (739471)

            It gets complicated. You can ship a kernel and a driver side-by-side ("mere aggregation" - section 2 of GPLv2). A user can then use modprobe to load the driver. At this point, has infringement occurred?

            • It gets complicated. You can ship a kernel and a driver side-by-side ("mere aggregation" - section 2 of GPLv2). A user can then use modprobe to load the driver. At this point, has infringement occurred?

              That is not mere aggregation. To get a binary that can be loaded into the kernel with modprobe, you must have already linked with the kernel. It's the reason why nvidia doesn't ship a driver ready to be loaded that way. You must use gcc to compile their little wrapper and link to the kernel yourself.

              Either that or get it from your distro, who are most certainly violating the GPL when they ship it. The reason nobody is complaining is because all that this would accomplish is getting the distros to stop c

              • by pjt33 (739471)

                I understand you to be saying that yes, you can work around the GPL, but you have to include an extra step. You have something which links in directly to the kernel and ship source for that, but it ties together the kernel and the driver and allows you to ship a binary driver with the kernel. Is that it?

                • I understand you to be saying that yes, you can work around the GPL, but you have to include an extra step. You have something which links in directly to the kernel and ship source for that, but it ties together the kernel and the driver and allows you to ship a binary driver with the kernel. Is that it?

                  Yeah, that's it, although I personally wouldn't call it "working around the GPL." That point is arguable, but the way I see it, the GPL restricts distribution, not use. If you, as the user, are willing to link something that is not free with your gpl code, you're absolutely free to do so. You're just not allowed to distribute the results.

                  Basically, I agree with your point on aggregation. I just wanted to clarify that if all you need to is type "modprobe driver_name", than that means that a driver_name.k

                  • by pjt33 (739471)

                    I do also wonder how well the argument that linking creates a derivative work would hold up in court - you could make the case that you can create a partial index to a work without creating a derivative work (and e.g. Google would certainly want to support you in making that case), and you can link using a partial "index" to the kernel without using the kernel itself.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Even if the device in question is a completely unaltered build of upstream, public-ally available, sources, anything GPL still has to be either made available with the binary or the binary has to be accompanied by a written offer to provide on request for no more than reasonable duplication costs.

      Many of these devices probably don't deviate much from upstream; but I'd be surprised if they are 100% identical(not that that is legally relevant; but if you aren't even shipping a binary based on upstream sour
    • by Fnkmaster (89084)

      Kernel source, specifically drivers and patches to build your own usable kernel is the issue here.

      It's a real problem with tablets. Yeah, in terms of the OS itself, AOSP provides everything we need to build our own, and vendors aren't under any obligation to provide UI layer changes they make to Apache-licensed stuff. That's fine, because 90% of those vendor changes suck anyway.

      But many of these tablets ship with buggy, binary-only kernels and driver modules with mysterious patch sets used to build them.

  • to buy from the list of GPL approved items...

    not to be a douche on this, but what is my incentive?

    If GPL item A is inferior to my needs than non technicality item B, why should I be buying A to enforce a co-alliance's problem, is it not their issue for letting these B items exist without ramifications?

    I for one am not going to bother checking a "naughty and nice" list for every single fkin purchase, force them if you want your licence to be inforced, otherwise leave me, the consumer out of it

    thanks

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 31, 2010 @03:37AM (#34719760)

      Assuming that you personally don't care about the ability to see and modify the source to the whole operating system on your phone, perhaps it would be nice to avoid this scenario:
      1) You buy GPL-violating tablet from no-name company.
      2) Company gets sued or threatened.
      3) Company disappears and your device no longer has any support.

      • by vlueboy (1799360)

        Step 3 alone deserves this AC be modded up!
        First-world markets are already cutthroat enough as it is, and you cannot find any device past 18 months still sitting on shelves brand new unless it is super, extremely popular. If you compare the success and support of your quickcams or blackberries, which are slightly different and each have their own idiosyncracies (remember the one that never got Win2K support when random other ones did.)

        Now, if we throw in an unstable mix of producers who get threatened to re

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Osgeld (1900440)

        yea companies like Samsung ...

        ok BSchinatech.ripoff I can understand, I pay 75 bucks for a tab, 5 years later who gives a crap

        but Sylvania is on that list too, are they a no-name company that will vanish from a little GPL lawsuit? what about Zenith or Viewsonic, or Creative Labs?

      • Or, what is also very likely.

        1) You buy _anything_ from no-name company.

        2) Company goes under because they didn't make the incredible sums of money they told their venture capitalists they would make. (This is *very* common with portable device manufacturers.) Or becasue their batteries melt. Or because their manager embezzled the money. Or because they get bought up by another company that could not care less about their purchased company's previous owners.

        3) In any case, with such a company, your device n

      • The interesting thing about that scenario is #3 is both (the argument for why you shouldn't complain about missing source code) and (the reason it would be good to have the source code).
    • You sound awfully bent out of shape, given that what you are responding to is some random internet writer's semi-rhetorical request...

      Obviously, only people with a strong personal interest in GPL matters are going to factor that in to their buying decision(along with a halo of people who don't actually care whether a specific distributor is compliant or not; but are basing their buying decision on whether or not a good 3rd-party build is available, since the 1st party builds on a lot of these no-names ar
    • by Soft (266615)

      not to be a douche on this, but what is my incentive?

      The same as for not downloading music that is not being offered legitimately. (Not even for free; you'd actually be paying the pirate, and not the artist.)

    • by imroy (755)

      not to be a douche on this, but what is my incentive? If GPL item A is inferior to my needs than non technicality item B...

      Your incentive is that the maker of item B might screw you and others over with the existing device or future devices e.g DRM, locking away your data in proprietary formats, selling your info to advertisers, trying to stop third-party firmware, etc. You have to wonder if their attitude to the GPL is just part of a general pattern of exploitation and corporate arrogance.

  • by gilesjuk (604902) <.giles.jones. .at. .zen.co.uk.> on Friday December 31, 2010 @06:30AM (#34720460)

    That sums up most Android vendors, they develop their own GUIs and improvements and don't give much or anything back to the project.

    Hardly in the spirit of open source is it?

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