Martin Hardie on Wed, 15 Oct 2003 14:43:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Linux strikes back III

In the light of the SCO stuff some may find this report of use ...

Linux's Hit Men
Daniel Lyons, 10.14.03, 7:00 AM ET

NEW YORK - In the world of "free" open source software, there is no
greater villain than SCO, owner of the Unix operating system.

The Lindon, Utah, company has outraged Linux lovers by suing IBM (nyse:
IBM - news - people ), claiming IBM stole Unix code and put it into Linux.
Some fear the lawsuit by SCO (nasdaq: SCOX - news - people ) will impede
the adoption of Linux.

But the spread of Linux could be hurt by another group--and ironically,
it's the free-software proponents themselves.

For months, in secret, the Free Software Foundation, a Boston-based group
that controls the licensing process for Linux and other "free" programs,
has been making threats to Cisco Systems (nasdaq: CSCO - news - people )
and Broadcom (nasdaq: BRCM - news - people ) over a networking router that
runs the Linux operating system.

The router is made by Linksys, a company Cisco acquired in June. It lets
you hook computers together on a wireless Wi-Fi network, employing a
high-speed standard called 802.11g. Aimed at home users, the $129 device
has been a smash hit, selling 400,000 units in the first quarter of this
year alone.

But now there's a problem. The Linux software in the router is distributed
under the GNU General Public License (GPL), which the Free Software
Foundation created in 1991.

Under the license, if you distribute GPL software in a product, you must
also distribute the software's source code. And not just the GPL code, but
also the code for any "derivative works" you've created--even if
publishing that code means anyone can now make a knockoff of your product.

Not great news if you're Cisco, which paid $500 million for Linksys. In
Cisco's case, it's even trickier, because the disputed code resides on
chips that Linksys buys from Broadcom. So now Cisco is caught between the
Free Software Foundation and one of its big suppliers.

For several months, officials from the Free Software Foundation have been
quietly pushing Cisco and Broadcom for a resolution. According to Free
Software Foundation Executive Director Bradley Kuhn, the foundation is
demanding that Cisco and Broadcom either a) rip out all the Linux code in
the router and use some other operating system, or b) make their code
available to the entire world.

And if they balk? Kuhn raises the threat of legal action. "We defend the
rights protected by the GPL license," he says. "We have legal teeth, so if
someone does not share and share alike, we can make them obey the rules."

The legal teeth belong to Eben Moglen, a Columbia Law School professor who
acts as pro bono counsel for the foundation. Moglen says his chats with
Cisco have been friendly, and he believes the matter will be settled
without a court fight. Cisco and Broadcom wouldn't comment.

The dispute, which was leaked to an Internet message board, offers a rare
peek into the dark side of the free software movement--a view that
contrasts with the movement's usual public image of happy software proles
linking arms and singing the "Internationale" while freely sharing the
fruits of their code-writing labor.

In fact, the Free Software Foundation runs a lot of these "enforcement
actions." There are 30 to 40 going on right now, and there were 50 last
year, Kuhn says. There have been hundreds since 1991, when the current
version of the GPL was published, he says. Tracking down bad guys has
become such a big operation that the Free Software Foundation has created
a so-called Compliance Lab to snoop out violators and bust them.

Who pays for this? The 12-employee Free Software Foundation has limited
resources. So it seeks donations. And sometimes it collects money from
companies it has busted.

Last year, the foundation alleged that OpenTV, a San Francisco company
that ships a set-top box containing Linux, was violating the GPL. The
drama took months to resolve and ended with OpenTV writing a check for
$65,000 to the Free Software Foundation. "They paid us a very substantial
payment for our time and trouble," Moglen says.

Sometimes it's the other way around--the foundation gets paid by private
companies for whom it acts as a sort of hired enforcer. Last year a
Swedish software company called mySQL asked for help resolving a dispute
with NuSphere, a subsidiary of Progress Software (nasdaq: PRGS - news -
people ). The companies had made a deal to work on software that would
include mySQL's GPL-licensed database program. A dispute arose over
contract issues, and also over the GPL, which mySQL claimed NuSphere had
violated. In the end, Progress resolved the matter by walking away from
the partnership.

Afterward, mySQL made a $25,000 donation to the Free Software Foundation.
Was this payback? "I won't say that," says Marten Mickos, chief executive
of mySQL. "But of course, why would we give them money if not as a sign of

The mySQL versus NuSphere squabble demonstrates another risk: These
disputes might scare companies away from using open source software.
Joseph Alsop [PersonId=142453], chief executive of Progress, reckons the
fiasco with mySQL cost his company $10 million in lost development and
marketing work. Now he says he is cautious about working with GPL
software. Instead, Progress uses an open source database program
distributed under the less onerous Berkeley Software Distribution license.

In some ways, these Free Software Foundation "enforcement actions" can be
more dangerous than a typical copyright spat, because usually copyright
holders seek money--say, royalties on the product that infringing
companies are selling. But the Free Software Foundation doesn't want
royalties--it wants you to burn down your house, or at the very least
share it with cloners.

Or maybe, as some suggest, the foundation wants GPL-covered code to creep
into commercial products so it can use GPL to force open those products.
Kuhn says that's nuts--"pure propaganda rhetoric." But he concedes that
his foundation hates the way companies like Oracle (nasdaq: ORCL - news -
people ) and Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) generate billions
of dollars by selling software licenses. "We'd like people to stop selling
proprietary software. It's bad for the world," Kuhn says.

So far, none of the Free Software Foundation's targets have decided it is
bad for the world and gone to court. This despite the fact that the
foundation has $750,000 in the bank and one lawyer who works for free,
part time, when he's not teaching classes at Columbia University.

Will Cisco and Broadcom be the first? Probably they'll decide, like
everyone else, that it's cheaper to settle than to fight.


"the riddle which man must solve, he can only solve in being, in 
being what he is and not something else...."

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