[personal profile] mjg59
A bit over a year ago, I wrote about how an incredible number of Android tablets on the market were in violation of the terms of the GPL. I've had rather a lot else to do since then so it's now awfully out of date - but taking a quick browse through the current stack of cheaper devices indicates that things aren't all that much better. We've got source code for some chipsets that were missing it before, but to compensate we've got a whole bunch of new hardware that's entirely lacking. It's all pretty poor, really.

At the time, I wrote the following:

"(Side note: People sometimes ask why Google aren't doing more to prevent infringing devices. For the vast majority of these cases, Google's sole contribution has been to put Android source code on a public website. Red Hat own more of the infringing code than Google do. There's no real reason why Google should be the ones taking the lead role here, and there's fairly sound business reasons why it's not in their interest to do so)"

Factually speaking, nothing's changed. Each of these devices contains code owned by Google, and Google could absolutely take legal action against the vendors. Equally, so could Red Hat, Intel, Nokia and dozens of other companies who hold copyright on portions of the code carried on these devices, and so could thousands of individuals around the world. Nobody's obliged to enforce their copyrights, and in the absence of anyone else doing so it's unreasonable to insist that Google should do it.


Google gives Android away. This seems like an odd thing for them to do, given that it's a significant engineering effort and costs a lot of money to produce. But remember what Android brings to Google - it's a platform with a well-integrated mechanism for distributing advertising to users. Scanning the market shows a huge number of ad-supported apps, and Google's getting money for every single one of those that gets shown. The more Android devices, the bigger the market for apps - and the wider their advertising reach.

In other words: unscrupulous hardware vendors save money by ignoring their GPL obligations. This lets them appeal on price, increasing the number of Android devices in use and increasing Google's profits. Google makes money off other people's violation of the GPL.

Could Google do anything to stop this? Yes. They could sue for copyright infringement, but that kind of thing's time consuming and awkward and any argument about the GPL always seems to end up as a big argument involving conspiracy theories. Instead, Google could attach some extra conditions to the Android trademark. Requiring that the trademark only be attached to GPL-compliant products ought to allow Google to take advantage of the existing well-tested mechanisms for seizing counterfeit goods, providing a direct economic incentive for companies to come into compliance. For added marks, they could restrict the adwords code to devices that use the trademark - if the vendor removes the trademark, applications depending on the adwords functionality would refuse to run and Google wouldn't make money off the infringing hardware.

Or, of course, they could just carry on making extra money as a result of vendors denying users the freedoms granted by the copyright holders. Although that sounds kind of evil to me.

Edit: You probably also want to read the followup post here.


Date: 2012-01-04 05:21 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
It's worth noting that Google tends to prefer the BSD Licence, and have placed the majority of their code under it - so others distributing Google contributions without the source is well within the terms of the licence of most of Android, just not the kernel

(And are Google's contributions there GPL or BSD?)

Date: 2012-01-04 05:42 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
For the most part, Google doesn't release their code under GPL, but under more permissive licenses, such as the Apache license. Thus, Google doesn't have much standing to sue over copyright infringement. Also, Google already suffers significantly from people threatening patent lawsuits against Linux; they don't want to do anything to encourage the perception of "use Linux and get sued". I can't see any possible rationale under which Google would find it in their best interests to sue Android device vendors over the GPL.

Date: 2012-01-04 11:28 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Yes, Google takes the same role that the Piratebay, Rapidshare or whoever take in the pirate wars. They maintain a platform that makes it easy for others to conduct copyright infringement and then make money off of it by serving ads to all sides.

mjg59's argument was not that what Google does is stupid, it was that it's evil.

Date: 2012-01-04 08:49 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
How, exactly, does Google make it easy to conduct copyright infringement? By providing an easy-to-use special-purpose Linux distribution for embedded and mobile systems?

They might not go out of their way to enforce FOSS licenses on other peoples' behalves, but that doesn't mean they make it easy to conduct copyright infringement; it just means they don't do other peoples' jobs for them.

Date: 2012-01-04 12:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkGSp7txHUnIvkXUgVDRNvWXOInOksiGFI
And yet, Google supports open source (GSOC, Mozilla), from this same pot of advertising money. Everyone's working for the Man.

Its not weird

Date: 2012-01-04 12:55 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Its not weird that google 'give' Android away when its based on Linux which was 'given' to them.

Thanks for raising this again.

Date: 2012-01-04 04:05 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)

Thanks for raising this issue again. Conservancy's doing some enforcement against Android tablet makers on behalf of our BusyBox project copyright holders. I think more individual copyright holders need to do more. I hope they will get in touch with me if they'd like help doing it.

Bradley M. Kuhn

Date: 2012-01-05 02:40 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The fact that google benefits from not suing, doesn't mean that they're evil. As aothers pointed out, they don't use GPL (unless, I guess, they have to, say when extending GPL'd software).

The observarion is that it's just a special purpose linux distribution is very spot on. So google is as much evil (in this case), as is Ubuntu or Debian. Or, we could say that Linus Torvalds and his friends, along all the guys who have written the GPL'd stuff are the real evils :).

Of course google won't sue for other people's copyright. And of course it would be against their interest to do so, but just because it's good for them, it doesn't mean that they are creating this situation. And yes, it would be better if every manufacturer released the source code, and it's upsetting that they don't do so.

Date: 2012-01-09 11:38 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Not only are Debian not profiting from GPL violations, we actively look for potential GPL violations within the distribution, look for potential violations in derived distributions and encourage derived distributions to become compliant where there are issues.


Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

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

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