The Anatomy of a Modern GPL Violation

Sunday 6 December 2009 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I've been thinking the last few weeks about the evolution of the GPL violation. After ten years of being involved with GPL enforcement, it seems like a good time to think about how things have changed.

Roughly, the typical GPL violation tracks almost directly the adoption and spread of Free Software. When I started finding GPL violations, it was in a day when Big Iron Unix was still king (although it was only a few years away from collapse), and the GNU tools were just becoming state of the art. Indeed, as a sysadmin, I typically took a proprietary Unix system, and built a /usr/local/ filled with the GNU tools, because I hated POSIX tools that didn't have all the GNU extensions.

At the time, many vendors were discovering the same frustrations I was as a sysadmin. Thus, the typical violation in those days was a third-party vendor incorporating some GNU tools into their products, for use on some Big Iron Unix. This was the age of the violating backup product; we saw frequently backup products that violated the GPL on GNU tar in those days.

As times changed, and computers got truly smaller, the embedded Unix-like system was born. GNU/Linux and (more commonly) BusyBox/Linux were the perfect solutions for this space. What was once a joke on comp.os.linux.advocacy in the 1990s began to turn into a reality: it was actually nearly possible for Linux to run on your toaster.

The first class of embedded devices that were BusyBox/Linux-based were the wireless routers. Throughout the 2000s, the typical violation was always some wireless router. I still occasionally see those types of products violating the GPL, but I think the near-constant enforcement done by Erik Andersen, FSF, and Harald Welte throughout the 2000's has led the wireless router violation to become the exception rather than the rule. That enforcement also led to the birth of community-focused development of the OpenWRT and DD-WRT, that all started from that first enforcement that we (Erik, Harald and FSF (where I was at the time)) all did together in 2002 to ensure the WRT54G source release.

In 2009, there's a general purpose computer in almost every electronics product. Putting a computer with 8MB RAM and a reasonable processor in a device is now a common default. Well, BusyBox/Linux was always the perfect operating system for that type of computer! So, when you walk through the aisles of the big electronics vendors today, it's pretty likely that many of the devices you see are BusyBox/Linux ones.

Some people think that a company can just get away with ignoring the GPL and the requirements of copyleft. Perhaps if a company has five customers total, and none of them ask for source, your violation may never be discovered. But, if you produce a mass market product based on BusyBox/Linux, some smart software developer is going to eventually buy one. They are going to get curious, and when they poke, they'll see what you put in there. And, that developer's next email is going to be to me to tell me all about that device. In my ten years of enforcement experience, I find that a company's odds of “getting away” with a GPL violation are incredibly low. The user community eventually notices and either publicly shames the company (not my preferred enforcement method), or they contact someone like me to pursue enforcement privately and encourage the company in a friendly way to join the FLOSS community rather than work against it.

I absolutely love that so many companies have adopted BusyBox/Linux as their default platform for many new products. Since circa 1994 when I first saw the “can my toaster run Linux?” joke, I've dreamed of time when it would be impossible to buy a mass-market electronics product without finding FLOSS inside. I'm delighted we've nearly reached that era during my lifetime.

However, such innovation is made possible by the commons created by the GPL. I have dedicated a large portion of my adult life to GPL enforcement precisely because I believe deeply in the value of that commons. As I find violator after violator, I look forward to welcoming them to our community in a friendly way, and ask them to respect the commons that gave them so much, and give their code back to the community that got them started.

Posted on Sunday 6 December 2009 at 08:50 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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