Ignorance no excuse for GPL violations

It's time for everyone in this business to understand that, despite its heritage of copyleft, the GPL is just like a Microsoft EULA.

I spent the morning with Jason Perlow (right) over at his ZDNet Tech Broiler, where he took apart the latest GPL violation suits.

Given my own experience with Chinese OEMs, everything Perlow says is quite reasonable. There's no process. It's hard to tell where code is coming from. The companies in question may have just had Chinese engineers who were ignorant of how they needed to publish their source in order to comply with the GPL.

Well, as a teacher once told me chillingly, "that's an explanation, not an excuse."

If these companies were incorporating Windows code into their devices and seeking to profit from them, Microsoft's lawyers would be on them with both feet faster than you can say "ka-ching."

It's time for everyone in this business to understand that, despite its heritage of copyleft, the GPL is just like a Microsoft EULA.

Software under the GPL may be free in terms of its price. But it's still licensed, and its use still obligates you to a form of payment, in this case the publication of code.

The Busybox Web site is written in English but its language is pretty plain:

Basically, if you distribute GPL software the license requires that you also distribute the source code to that GPL-licensed software. So if you distribute BusyBox without making the source code to the version you distribute available, you violate the license terms, and thus infringe on the copyrights of BusyBox. (This requirement applies whether or not you modified BusyBox; either way the license terms still apply to you.)

Don't understand English? Find someone who does. All these defendants have English-speaking engineers and lawyers on-call.

While at CompuTex in June I talked to several Chinese executives who described their ambitions to go up the food chain, to turn their companies into big name brands, to become real players on the global stage.

Part of being a player means taking responsibility for your work, as in this case. It means having a development process you can monitor, audit, and explain after-the-fact.

While I understand what Jason is writing, I'm left feeling as I do about companies that use spammers and phony Internet games to harvest e-mails and addresses from unsuspecting users. I just said do it, I didn't say how, they say when caught.

Well, here in the real world you're responsible for how as well as what. The explanations are not excuses. If your engineers are ignorant you have a legal obligation to educate them.

If not, pay up.

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