[personal profile] mjg59
There was another upsurge in discussion of Android GPL issues last month, triggered by couple of posts by Edward Naughton, followed by another by Florian Mueller. The central thrust is that section 4 of GPLv2 terminates your license on violation, and you need the copyright holders to grant you a new one. If they don't then you don't get to distribute any more copies of the code, even if you've now come into compliance. TLDR; most Android vendors are no longer permitted to distribute Linux.

I'll get to that shortly. There's a few other issues that could do with some clarification. The first is Naughton's insinuation that Google are violating the GPL due to Honeycomb being closed or their "license washing" of some headers. There's no evidence whatsoever that Google have failed to fulfil their GPL obligations in terms of providing source to anyone who received GPL-covered binaries from them. If anyone has some, please do get in touch. Some vendors do appear to be unwilling to hand over code for GPLed bits of Honeycomb. That's an issue with the vendors, not Google.

His second point is more interesting, but the summary is "Google took some GPLed header files and relicensed them under Apache 2.0, and they've taken some other people's GPLv2 code and put it under Apache 2.0 as well". As far as the headers go, there's probably not much to see here. The intent was to produce a set of headers for the C library by taking the kernel headers and removing the kernel-only components. The majority of what's left is just structure definitions and function prototypes, and is almost certainly not copyrightable. And remember that these are the headers that are distributed with the kernel and intended for consumption by userspace. If any of the remaining macros or inline functions are genuinely covered by the GPLv2, any userspace application including them would end up a derived work. This is clearly not the intention of the authors of the code. The risk to Google here is indistinguishable from zero.

How about the repurposing of other code? Naughton's most explicit description is:

For example, Android uses “bootcharting” logic, which uses “the 'bootchartd' script provided by www.bootchart.org, but a C re-implementation that is directly compiled into our init program.” The license that appears at www.bootchart.org is the GPLv2, not the Apache 2.0 license that Google claims for its implementation.

, but there's no indication that Google's reimplementation is a derived work of the GPLv2 original.

In summary: No sign that Google's violating the GPL.

Florian's post appears to be pretty much factually correct, other than this bit discussing the SFLC/Best Buy case:

I personally believe that intellectual property rights should usually be enforced against infringing publishers/manufacturers rather than mere resellers, but that's a separate issue.

The case in question was filed against Best Buy because Best Buy were manufacturing infringing devices. It was a set of own-brand Blu Ray players that incorporated Busybox. Best Buy were not a mere reseller.

Anyway. Back to the original point. Nobody appears to disagree that section 4 of the GPLv2 means that violating the license results in total termination of the license. The disagreement is over what happens next. Armijn Hemel, who has done various work on helping companies get back into compliance, believes that simply downloading a new copy of the code will result in a new license being granted, and that he's received legal advice that supports that. Bradley Kuhn disagrees. And the FSF seem to be on his side.

The relevant language in v2 is:

You may not copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute the Program except as expressly provided under this License. Any attempt otherwise to copy, modify, sublicense or distribute the Program is void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this License.

The relevant language in v3 is:

You may not propagate or modify a covered work except as expressly provided under this License. Any attempt otherwise to propagate or modify it is void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this License

which is awfully similar. However, v3 follows that up with:

However, if you cease all violation of this License, then your license from a particular copyright holder is reinstated (a) provisionally, unless and until the copyright holder explicitly and finally terminates your license, and (b) permanently, if the copyright holder fails to notify you of the violation by some reasonable means prior to 60 days after the cessation.

In other words, with v3 you get your license back providing you're in compliance. This doesn't mesh too well with the assumption that you can get a new license by downloading a new copy of the software. It seems pretty clear that the intent of GPLv2 was that the license termination was final and required explicit reinstatement.

So whose interpretation is correct? At this point we really don't know - the only people who've tried to use this aspect of the GPL are the SFLC, and as part of their settlements they've always reinstated permission to distribute Busybox. There's no clear legal precedent. Which makes things a little awkward.

It's not possible to absolutely say that many Android distributors no longer have the right to distribute Linux. But nor is it possible to absolutely say that they haven't lost that right. Any sufficiently motivated kernel copyright holder probably could engage in a pretty effective shakedown racket against Android vendors. Whether they will do remains to be seen, but honestly if I were an Android vendor I'd be worried. There's plenty of people out there who hold copyright over significant parts of the kernel. Would you really bet on all of them being individuals of extreme virtue?

Re: Bizarre

Date: 2011-09-04 03:53 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I guess I am. Or at least that myself and other GPL2-code-releasing people I have talked to have always had a different understanding of the license.

I would like to see an official statement from the FSF on this - is there one?

Re: Bizarre

Date: 2011-09-04 04:59 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Well, if I had known that in advance, I never would have released any code under the GPL2...

Re: Bizarre

Date: 2011-09-08 09:45 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
It's not too late! It's your copyright --- you can give people whatever additional licenses you please (though honestly, the GPLv2 is a pretty reasonable one).


Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

Power management, mobile and firmware developer on Linux. Security developer at Nebula. Ex-biologist. @mjg59 on Twitter. Content here should not be interpreted as the opinion of my employer.

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