Open Source Software's Legal Muscle Scores a Victory

Score one for free software. As Monsoon Multimedia learned the hard way, just because software has no cost doesn't mean that it has no restrictions. Yesterday, the pro-bono legal team at the Software Freedom Law Center announced that they'd reached a settlement in the first ever lawsuit filed over the General Public License. The GPL protects open source software by allowing anyone to copy, modify and redistribute the software only if they pass those rights on to the next user.

Many companies make use of open source software in consumer products and fully comply with the GPL by posting the source code on their websites.

The software involved in this case was a program called BusyBox, a lightweight package of common Unix utilities commonly used in embedded systems. It appears that Monsoon Multimedia, the defendant, used the code in their Hava product (a Slingbox alternative that allows remote television viewing and recording via PC) without making the source code available--a violation of the GPL.

What's weird is that this violation ever required legal action. Before the Software Freedom Law Center existed, most GPL enforcement was handled by the Free Software Foundation. I've talked with former and current employees of both groups and they repeatedly emphasize that all they care about is compliance, not retribution. Most companies are happy to comply when they find out it's relatively painless and costs no money. According to Eben Moglen, the law center's chairman, who spoke to IEEE Spectrum, most violators simply misunderstand what the license requires, and comply after a little prodding.

When I heard that the lawsuit was filed, it surprised me that Monsoon hadn't been cooperative--all they had to do was make a web page that provided source code. Over at Linux-Watch, they speculated that Monsoon might actually have been looking for a legal fight:

Interestingly, Monsoon Multimedia is run by a highly experienced lawyer named Graham Radstone. According to his corporate biography, Radstone has an MA in Law from the University of Cambridge, England, and held the top legal spot at an unnamed "$1 billion private multinational company."

But it now looks like they simply bungled the situation, with the settlement requiring them to fork out an "undisclosed financial consideration." It appears that the whole thing was nothing more than a case of corporate foot-dragging and bone-headed customer relations. It's not like Monsoon was the only company misusing BusyBox--the developers used to post a "hall of shame" on their website--but Monsoon made the mistake of admitting in their own public forum that they were in violation after a user asked if Hava boxes ran Linux.

At the beginning of September, a Monsoon Multimedia representative confirmed that the device used both Linux and BusyBox, and that they planned on making the source code available. Aaron Murray, the user who started the thread back in March, told me that he began emailing tech support about the violation but got no response until the representative began the "unpleasant" forum exchange (read the thread for an example of why using "humorous" threats are a bad idea). The representative claimed that they planned to post the source code, but several weeks passed without action. The whole thing blew up when the news hit Slashdot, and the developers looked to the Software Freedom Law Center for help.

Legal director Dan Raviture told me that after a week of no replies from Monsoon, they decided to file suit. "This lawsuit was a last resort." he said. "If you wait too long you start to prejudice your own rights." In this case, the strong-arm strategy paid off--Monsoon Multimedia has now complied with the GPL and the BusyBox developers are a little richer for their trouble.

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