The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), a non-profit organization that promotes open source software and defends the free software General Public License (GPL), recently sued major television provider Vizio for abusing the GPL with its Linux-based SmartCast operating system. Vizio replied that the SFC had no right to request the source code. On May 13, however, the SFC succeeded in federal court with its motion to have its lawsuit against Vizio returned to Superior Court in Orange County, California.
That doesn’t seem so important? Think again. The significant part of the ruling by United States District Court Judge Josephine L. Staton said that SFC’s assertion “that the [GPLv2] the application of “an additional contractual promise separate and distinct from any rights provided by copyright laws” amounts to an “additional element” and, therefore, SFC’s claims are not pre-empted”.
Karen M. Sandler, Executive Director of SFC, explained, “The decision is a watershed moment in the history of copyleft licensing. This decision shows that GPL agreements function both as copyright licenses and as a contractual agreement. Sandler added that even in the free and open source software (FOSS) legal community, people incorrectly argue that the GPL and other copyleft licenses only function as copyright licenses. This decision makes it clear that the GPL also functions as a contract.
Additionally, this ruling makes it the first case to show that individual consumers have rights to source code as third-party beneficiaries of the GPL.
The SFC won its case that the Vizio SmartCast TV operating system contained software that Vizio unfairly appropriated from a community of developers. Specifically, SFC alleged that Vizio used Linux source code and other open source software, such as BusyBox, U-Boot, bash, gawk, tar, Glibc and FFmpeg in its SmartCast OS TV firmware. Because these programs are protected by the GPL version 2 (GPLv2) and the Lesser GPL (LGPL), consumers, not just developers, have the right to modify, improve, share, and reinstall modified versions. software.
“We ask the court to require Vizio to meet its obligations under the copyleft compliance requirements,” Sandler said. Previously, the GPL had been upheld in court for Linux and the open source developers who owned the copyrights to the code. In this case, SFC sought to show that it is not only copyright holders, but also users who are entitled to the rights granted to them by the GPL.
In this lawsuit, the SFC is not seeking monetary damages. Instead, all SFC wants is for Vizio to provide the source code to all customers who buy its TVs. Specifically, the requester requests technical information via “specific performance” rather than “damage”.
Will many Vizio customers want this code? No, probably not. But that is what is at stake here. It is for this reason that this decision is a game-changer for open source rights.