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Legal Issues

by Timothy Lee

Filed Under:


Lawsuit Tests The Legal Status Of The GPL

from the license-or-contract dept

On Wednesday, the Software Freedom Law Center filed a lawsuit to enforce the GPL against a company that has been distributing GPL-derived software without disclosing the source code, as the GPL requires. The SFLC says this is the first US copyright infringement lawsuit it has ever filed for infringement of the GPL. Traditionally, SFLC head Eben Moglen has worked to settle disputes with companies without going to court. But in this case the lawsuit was filed less than a month after SFLC first contacted the defendant, Monsoon Multimedia, about its violation of the license. Luis Villa suggests a couple of possible reasons they moved so quickly. One is that Monsoon failed to respond to the SFLC's letters, leaving them little choice but to go to court. Another factor is the recent Jacobsen decision, which called into question the enforceability of open source software licenses. The SFLC may have felt its chances of winning on appeal were not as good with the Jacobsen case, which is more complicated and involves a less popular license. And so instead of appealing Jacobsen, they may have fast-tracked a case they believe will make it more likely they'll win on appeal.

This will be an important case because it will help clarify the legal status of the GPL and other copyleft licenses. The Free Software Foundation argues that the GPL is a license, and that any violation of the GPL results in copyright infringement. That would entitle the authors of GPLed software not only to monetary damages but also to prohibit further use of the software by the infringing party. But other legal scholars think the GPL may be interpreted as a contract, in which case only monetary damages would be available. And because GPLed software is given away for free, it's an open question how those damages would be calculated. It's conceivable that a judge could hold that the proper amount of monetary damages is zero since the software is being given away for free. The SFLC is clearly trying to avoid that outcome by emphasizing that the software in question is sold by "more than 100 manufacturers all over the world, including IBM, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, and Siemens."

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  1. identicon
    zcat, 21 Sep 2007 @ 4:58pm

    There are three possible outcomes;

    The GPL is found to be valid, and Monsoon is complying with it. Monsoon wins.

    The GPL is found to be valid, but Monsoon are not complying with it. Monsoon loses.

    The GPL is found invalid, therefore Monsoon have no license. Monsoon still lose.

    This case isn't really about the validity of the GPL. It's about Monsoon's compliance with the GPL.

    The GPL might as well be assumed valid because vast armies or lawyers at companies like IBM, Novell and Redhat have looked at it. Nobody has ever managed to prove it invalid, very few even get so far as getting it into court. Besides, if they prove it invalid they still lose!

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