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GNU is Not Unix Software Linux

Enforcing the GPL On Software Companies? 480

Piranhaa"I currently use an IPTV box that runs software by Minerva Networks. When you ssh into the box, you are greeted with a BusyBox v1.00 (ash) shell. It's clearly running a flavor of Linux (uname -apm outputs: Linux minerva_10_0_3_99 2.4.30-tango2- #29 Wed Mar 16 16:16:16 CET 2005 mips unknown). However, when you look at their Web site there is no publicly available source code. Since the GPL in both BusyBox and the Linux kernel require that anyone using and distributing the binaries of this software make source available to everyone, what would one do in order to enforce this? I've personally emailed Minerva and left voicemails with no reply."
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Enforcing the GPL On Software Companies?

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  • by A beautiful mind ( 821714 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @05:47AM (#23892769)
    The requirement is: if you distribute the binaries, you need to provide the source too. If they are using an unmodified vanilla kernel, they still need to respond at least with "grab the code from".
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 22, 2008 @05:55AM (#23892807)

    Most STB's (Set-Top-Boxes) are using some version of Linux and probably also busybox. Amino and Motorola (ex-Kreatel) does this.

    They could probably deny you any source code and state that they, do not use any code in violation of GLP and that they only provide hardware and that it is the network-providers that are responsible for whats running on the boxes.

  • by giminy ( 94188 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @06:00AM (#23892831) Homepage Journal

    Sounds like you need to take the GPL quiz []. This particular issue is addressed in Question 1 of said quiz.

    Don't worry, you're definitely not alone in any misunderstandings of the GPL...lots of people think they understand all the legal aspects of it completely when they don't. I used to be guilty myself. Now I just don't claim to know everything about the GPL ;-).

  • by RyuuzakiTetsuya ( 195424 ) <taiki.cox@net> on Sunday June 22, 2008 @06:03AM (#23892839)

    It's an asinine thing to say but, if they just dropped their source for the shipping product in the /src dir like most linux distros do for whatever version kernel they're using, shouldn't it then put it in line with the GPL?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 22, 2008 @06:04AM (#23892843)
    Sometimes companies with hotshot lawyers deliberately put their head in the sand regarding the GPL. They want to use the code but don't want to make their changes public for "intellectual property" reasons, even if it's something as trivial as a few patches to fix some bugs in Linux or some existing drivers. They will "educate" staff as to why they can do what they do with GPL software "legally." The hotshot lawyer has it all figured out, and engineers don't really need to know the details. The excuse is that they "buy their Linux" from a 3rd party so that means that all the conditions of the GPL are not relevant for some lawyerish reason. Oh, and the GPL is "contentious" about what you actually have to do regarding distributing source.
  • End User Not Owner? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @06:17AM (#23892903)

    IANAL but as I understand it the GPL requires that source is made available to customers, not everyone. Of course in this case they don't appear to be making it available to customers either.
    What if the end-user, the guy with the box, doesn't own it? Suppose the IPTV company maintains ownership of the box? Than the end-user wouldn't need to be provided with the code?
  • by BokLM ( 550487 ) <> on Sunday June 22, 2008 @06:38AM (#23892975) Homepage Journal

    What if the end-user, the guy with the box, doesn't own it? Suppose the IPTV company maintains ownership of the box? Than the end-user wouldn't need to be provided with the code?

    That's what (a french isp renting box running linux and other GPL software) is doing. But this is sort of a grey area here, the GPL doesn't talk about ownership, it talks about distribution, and this is up to the judge to decide whether it is distribution or not in this case. Here some people are going to sue because they refuse to distribute the sources they modified, we'll see what happens ...

  • by walter_f ( 889353 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @06:42AM (#23892997)

    FSF and are co-operating closely. gpl-violations and FSF have handled some cases regarding busybox before and have handled them successfully (i.e., out-of-court settlements have been achieved).

    And a settlement resulting in GPL compliance - that's what enforcing the GPL is all about.

    As Eben Moglen, legal counsel to the FSF for many years, put it (in a keynote address in October 2006):

    When I went to work for Richard Stallman in 1993, he said to me at the first instruction over enforcing the GPL, "I have a rule. You must never let a request for damages interfere with a settlement for compliance."

    I thought about that for a moment and I decided that that instruction meant that I could begin every telephone conversation with a violator of the GPL with magic words: We don't want money. When I spoke those words, life got simpler. The next thing I said was, We don't want publicity.

    The third thing I said was, We want compliance. We won't settle for anything less than compliance, and that's all we want.

    Now I will show you how to make that ice in the wintertime. And so they gave me compliance.
    --- []

  • Re:PHB (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Antique Geekmeister ( 740220 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @06:51AM (#23893025)

    It is, isn't it? While Richard Stallman certainly did not write all of it, the document shows his experience and intelligence at dealing with odd interactions. It's what I'd expect from someone so deeply involved in creating gcc and glibc and emacs, and the development of so many other GNU software tools.

    Richard does not put in the odd language or strange requirements for no reason: he's usually quite correct in being paranoid of those strange cases, because as an experienced programmer and now an experienced political activist he's seen compelling reasons to handle them specifically. It's why code by older programmers often is longer and more extensive than the simpler, cleaner, but more trusting software written by less experienced developers. The new developers with exciting new approaches often haven't learned the lessons of our experience, and by the time they've done all the patching to avoid the same pitfalls, their code will be as arcane as ours.

  • by bipbop ( 1144919 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @07:19AM (#23893113)
    Working at a company with multiple physically distant colos, our legal dept informed us that we could not alter GPL code and push it to the servers without distributing the source publicly, because copying it over to the physically distant servers could be (and was presumed to be) "distribution". So, even "owning" every box it ran on, and giving binaries to no one else, legal felt distribution was taking place--or at least, felt it was a serious enough interpretation that they wouldn't want us to get sued after assuming it was false.
  • P903iTV mobile phone (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Joseph_Daniel_Zukige ( 807773 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @07:26AM (#23893139) Homepage Journal

    Different product, but I've seen and heard indications that my Docomo P903iTV by panasonic is running on top of Linux. I can't find any mention of Linux in the manuals, let alone an offer of source for the kernel, etc., or any indication of a way to access a shell, etc.

    There is a java API, called, I think, iAppli. I haven't found much on getting dev stuff for it in the manuals, but it can be found on the web. I think. I haven't actually tried it yet, and it doesn't look like they make it easy to figure out where to start.

    While I'm complaining, the USB adaptor is "not guaranteed to work with Macs or Linux". The sales guy I talked to seemed almost proud to say that and seemed quite anxious to discourage me from buying the adaptor to see if I can even mount the internal flash or the microSD card. I let him discourage me because money is really tight.

    If anyone knows anything about this phone, I'd appreciate some pointers.

    Lousy Japanese market. The government promotes Linux. Industry likes Linux in industry as long as it's nowhere near the consumer market. Marketing is strictly under the thumb of Microsoft/iNTEL. Can't get a Linux eeePC (not that I'm that anxious to buy an iNTEL processor) in Japan because "this is Japan, of course!" (Implicitly, otaku are expected to be happy to pay the Microsoft tax.)

  • by tomhudson ( 43916 ) <barbara.hudson@[ ... m ['bar' in gap]> on Sunday June 22, 2008 @08:13AM (#23893343) Journal

    ... or maybethe source is included on each device, in a directory that you wouldn't normally access (set-top boxes for hdtv include a hard drive)? Also, Minerva doesn't distribute set-top boxes to end-users - they license their software to box manufacturers. Minerva only have to provide the source to those manufacturers who ask for it, which they might be doing, since Minevra's website says that their stuff easily integrates with OSS.

    The end user, on the other hand, has to go to the set-top box manufacturer, since Minerva never distributed software to the end-user, only the set-top box manufacturer did.

  • by thermian ( 1267986 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @08:18AM (#23893363)

    I can see why they would think this was easy to get away with.

    Even sourceforge have allowed projects to use their services which state they are open source, under the GPL, and yet do not make source code available.

    Here's one example. []
    The company concerned used sourceforge until their product was ready, then moved it onto their own site, changing the product to a free, but feature reduced version, and a paid for full feature version. The source code has never been made available.

    In their forum I found this little nugget
    In my understanding there's no difference whether you call it GPL or Free Version. Most people don't care about the license as long as they don't have to pay for it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 22, 2008 @08:23AM (#23893391)

    Under copyright law, there is absolutely no requirement for them to provide the source code.

    Wrong. The OP received the binary in a product he purchased from them. By the terms in the GPL, they are required to make that source available to him (not us non-owners). If they choose to not do so, they are no longer licensed to use the code. That's thew whole point of the GPL. They can keep it to themselves, but as soon as they distribute it, they have to make the source availably to those that they distribute the binaries too. As they are not, they are liable to copyright theft law suits. This company is now a "criminal", just like the MPAA and RIAA targets.

    The best way to treat companies stealing other peoples' work and pass it off as their own, is simply name and shame in places that care about these things.

  • Re:PHB (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Hal_Porter ( 817932 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @10:08AM (#23894057)

    I know you're joking, but section 6 of the GPL prevents this most commonly by using the phrase: "on a durable physical medium customarily used for software interchange."

    Floppy disks would be ok then?
  • by acvh ( 120205 ) <.moc.sragicsm. .ta. .keeg.> on Sunday June 22, 2008 @10:55AM (#23894367) Homepage

    you're like the guy on the Garden State Parkway who drives 65 in the left lane to keep everyone else from speeding. at most you should drop a note to the copyright holders, and then stay the hell out of it.

  • by ari_j ( 90255 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @11:05AM (#23894433)
    I was actually just thinking about this, and here's a thought. If you have actually been damaged by someone refusing to distribute the source code as required by the GPL, you may be able to bring a lawsuit as an intended third-party beneficiary [] of the contract between the copyright holder and the licensee. If you really want a good time, and you and other people have had small but measurable damages, you could bring a class action.
  • by Repossessed ( 1117929 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @12:27PM (#23894977)

    Given the sheer number of utility tools the FSF has the copyrights on, its unlikely that they were able to give the box ssh ability without using any of the FSF copyrighted material. The op doesn't mention anything that it would be, but 'info coreutils' should give a nice list of potential thing for them to latch onto, at least on debian boxes.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 22, 2008 @02:32PM (#23896111)

    Yeah, that is correct. I am work for a company which I won't name(Not the company that the OP is talking about) that uses exactly this provision in the GPL to keep Source Code off of the main Website. I know that sounds bad, but the real reason is that we don't actually have 100% of the source code our self.

    One of the original developers that worked on this product got lazy and originally most of the smaller parts of the system were actually pulled into the project in binary form from several different Linux distributions. The problem is we too this day don't know for sure where he got all of this stuff. We have been weeding it out of the image as time goes on but I know that even today there are a few things that are just being pulled into new images in binary form. I know that currently most of the stuff still in binary form is stuff that could be replaced with BusyBox but we don't like the busybox version for one reason or another.

    But one really interesting thing I have learned is since we actually see all of the code requests come in is that so far nobody has really wanted to the code for a practical reason. All of the requests have been done for "GPL Activism". In the majority of cases when people ask for code they just wanted to see if we would let them have it. I only one case that I know of did anyone go so far as actually getting code. I am rather sure we just shipped him a burned CD with all of the code on it. But after he got it he told us that he didn't really want the code, he just wanted to see if we would give it to him just like all of the other requests.

    In most cases these forms of source code dumps don't really give you much of anything useful. What you end-up with is a source code package on company server that may or may not have anything really useful the to rest of the open source community included in it. Someone could diff the public version and these private forks, generate patches and see if anything would be useful to merge into the mainline. But that is a lot of work for something that you don't even know is worthwhile from the get go. I will tell you that the majority of the software included in our firmware isn't modified.

    I feel instead that when the company in question makes changes it's FAR more important that they submit patches to the mainline developers for possible inclusion. This is what we are actually doing, we have been working very closely with normal maintainers to add some major new networking features to Linux. And I know patches are going into the mainline version. I guess in the end what would most people rather have... Some files on a webserver that might have something really useful buried inside them or companies working with developers to get new features added to the mainline source code. I feel that this pressure to have source code posted on websites would be better spent trying to actually get a real dialog between these companies and the open source developers. Working with a developer is always going to be harder than just slapping up some source code on a webserver. Which is why I feel that it's just an easy out in many cases but doesn't really help the community.

    p.s. Our biggest sort-of competitor also uses open source software... They allow everyone to download the software in binary form. But if you want source code... you have to Wire Transfer ~$50 to former a USSR country... which in and of itself is a violation of the GPL. And given some of the features that they have added is to software packages that they don't even list as being included really makes me wonder what you get for $50...

  • Re:Write to the FSF. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Sunday June 22, 2008 @07:17PM (#23898057) Homepage Journal

    Wouldn't contacting the company be a better place to start? They are not required to put the source code on the website.
    Also if they don't modify the source do they have to make it available? Does Dell offer Ubuntu for download?

Order and simplification are the first steps toward mastery of a subject -- the actual enemy is the unknown. -- Thomas Mann