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Does Android Have a Linux Copyright Problem? 292

An anonymous reader writes "TheRegister says Google's attempt to purge copyright from header files has put mobile developers at risk of being forced to reveal their own source code, according to legal experts. This time it's not patents or Android's reinterpretation of Java that's causing problems, but the Linux code that compiles down into Android itself. The discussion started with a Huffington Post article by IP lawyer Edward Naughton, who has serious doubts about Google's approach to the Linux kernel header files. He in turn links to copyright law professor Ray Nimmer's blog post on disclosure risks on copyleft platforms. And IP blogger Florian Mueller believes Google faces a serious Linux copyright issue."
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Does Android Have a Linux Copyright Problem?

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  • NO... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 17, 2011 @01:54PM (#35519484)

    No real risks, just header files which are not even copyrightable and things explicitly permitted by the lesser (lib) GPL licence anyway, noting to read here just Florian Mueller posting as anonymous for the FUD...

  • Re:NO... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by poetmatt ( 793785 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:02PM (#35519614) Journal

    yup. The real question is "Does Florian Mueller have a open source problem?" and the answer is yes.

  • by davek ( 18465 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:03PM (#35519632) Homepage Journal

    From TFA:

    Google took a novel and quite aggressive approach to developing a key component of Android -- the Bionic Library. That library, a type of C Library, is used by all application developers who need to access the core functions of the Linux operating system. Google essentially copied hundreds of files of Linux code that were never meant to be used as is by application developers, "cleaned" those files using a non-standard and questionable technical process, and then declared that the code was no longer subject to the GPLv2

    That "technical process" looks like it refers to an automated filter that it ran the standard Linux header files through, resulting in part of the API for the non-GPL Bionic Library used in application development. One reading of copyright law could determine that the Bionic Library is a direct derivative of the Linux Kernel and therefore must be GPLv2 and open source. This library is essential for Android application development, therefore it would become legally impossible to develop a closed-source Android app.

    Personally, my reading of GPLv2 tells me that simply including GPLv2 header files does not mean that your application must also be GPLv2 (otherwise a large part of the embedded market simply wouldn't exist). So I'm marking this one down as FUD.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:22PM (#35519904)

    Well you're obviously not a copyright genius, otherwise you'd know that header files usually only contain structural information about functions that doesn't contain the level of creativity required to clear the threshold for copyright protection.

  • Re:What the heck? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:27PM (#35519978) Journal

    Ah. Concise. To-the-point. Quite possibly completely wrong.

    Read and learn. []

    Actual practitioners of the law, people who don't have to say "IANAL" like you obviously should have, say that the answer is unsettled. There is precedent that header files, in general, may be copyrightable. Header files that express APIs, perhaps less so, because the API itself is not copyrightable. (But again, the idea of a big white whale and and obsessive whaler hunting each other isn't copyrighted, but I'm pretty sure Moby Dick certainly was.

    But let me put your central assertion to the most obvious test. I write the Great American Novel. It's an awesome novel. It's breathtaking, ground-breaking, and lots of other "aking" things. But I'm eccentric. So I write it entirely as a C++ comment block, and in a file called "GreatAmericanNovel.hpp".

    Why isn't it copyrighted, again?

  • Re:What the heck? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by samjam ( 256347 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:28PM (#35519990) Homepage Journal

    Header files generally specify an interface, the libraries implement the interface.

    However header files can implement some of the interface by use of inline functions and macros.

    As has been hinted, these are more likely to be subject to copyright as they are more than a minimal specification required for interoperability.

  • Re:What the heck? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Raffaello ( 230287 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:30PM (#35520018)

    Header files implement an interface. That interface is a fact, not subject to copyright.

    The fact "strcpy takes as arguments two character pointers, and returns a character pointer", is not copyrightable. This does not change if I express it in C as "char *strcpy(char *d, const char *s);"

    A minimal C or C++ header file is just a collection of such facts.

    The point Nimmer, an acknowledged authority on IP law, makes is that when you aggregate such "facts" the resultant text, essentially becomes an expressive description of how a whole system works, and therefore is copyrightable. Otherwise one could argue that each individual word in a book is such a "fact," and that copying a book is just copying a series of facts and therefore not a copyright violation.

    Whether a work is copyrightable is a matter of examining the whole work in the context of its use, not just determining that individual lines are not copyrightable and concluding that the whole work is therefore not copyrightable.

    So no, it is not yet a settled matter of law that header files are not copyrightable.

  • by EdgeyEdgey ( 1172665 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:35PM (#35520086)
    Seems like a good analogy.
  • Re:What the heck? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by just_another_sean ( 919159 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:36PM (#35520100) Journal

    If all a header file does is describe an interface then no, I don't think it should be copyrighted. The interface is there to promote
    interoperability and if headers were subject to copyright we might have Linux but it damn well would not work as a near perfect
    drop in replacement for Unix.

    If people are putting code in headers that are worthy of copyright my first reaction would be "they're doing it wrong".

    All phone books are uninteresting. Some books are interesting. All header files (IMHO) should be uninteresting.

    IANAL - I might be wrong but I trust my own knowledge over anything Florian has to say on the subject.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:43PM (#35520206)

    Who cares what Google uses internally? I can modify all the GPL software I want at home and not release the changes, and so can all companies. There's nothing illegal or immoral about it.

    I wish their major Android apps were open sourced, but that's a different matter.

  • Re:What the heck? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by arose ( 644256 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @02:45PM (#35520230)
    If the rest of "GreatAmericanNovel.hpp" describes an API and the comments are stripped, what creative work is left?
  • Re:lol (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @03:02PM (#35520484) Homepage

    It's getting comical reading how everyone is going after google every time they have a product that ends up being successful

    Only when they run roughshod over the applicable laws to what they're doing.

    People aren't slagging them because they came up with Street View or that they made Android ... they violated privacy laws (and some might say computer access laws by sniffing Wi Fi) in some places, and they may have violated copyright by taking stuff from Linux and stripping out the copyright.

    Go ahead, be successful. But, don't cut corners and skirt around the law in the process. That's what people are concerned about.

  • While "filing off" copyright notices and comments does not suddenly make code less covered by the GPL, this is not what is being done.

    Read the RATIONALE section at the bottom. []

    After you've read it, if you still have a problem, to put this into perspective ... let's take a proprietary platform, Windows. There is nothing to prevent me from creating a set of optimized headers that wrap around the windows api, leaving out unnecessary parameters, constants, and code definitions that will conflict with my userland application code, and defining new "convienence" methods, functions, classes and structures.

    If I then use the "cleaned up" headers to create an application, that application is no less my work because I used the "cleaned up" version as opposed to the original kernel source.

    Proprietary applications can use these "cleaned up" header files without falling afoul of the GPL, the same as if they had used the original headers. Otherwise, the "binary blob" device driver problem would clearly not exist.

    From the GPL v2:

    identifiable sections of that work are not derived from the Program, and can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves, then this License, and its terms, do not apply to those sections when you distribute them as separate works.

    An application distributed separately, just like a driver distributed separately, is not "derived" from the kernel source.

    Thus, it is not the intent of this section to claim rights or contest your rights to work written entirely by you; rather, the intent is to exercise the right to control the distribution of derivative or collective works based on the Program.

    It's a tricky balance. The kernel is gpl, and the code is available, including the "cleaned up headers" code, as per the gpl.

    Just remember, an application that calls kernel functions is not "derived from" the kernel any more than an application that calls the windows api is "derived from" windows.

    I believe this is just more FUD on the part of certain parties ... ask yourself "cui bono", then follow the money to the usual suspects.

  • SCO In Reverse (Score:4, Insightful)

    by FrankDrebin ( 238464 ) on Thursday March 17, 2011 @03:54PM (#35521278) Homepage

    It's the 99% of lawyers that give the rest a bad name.

    Naughton's trying to do a reverse SCO here... Oh noes, they copied the defines from errno.h! Completely dumb and a waste of time. There are lots of C libraries out there with Linux linkage. Saying A means 1, B means 2, and C means 3 is as copyrightable as Pi=3.1415. And nobody cares how you arrive at a preferred expression of that stuff, say by doing a dramatic reading of the POSIX standard into voice recognition software. Nobody cares except perhaps a FLOSS ambulance chaser.

Logic is a pretty flower that smells bad.