Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

Summary: An attorney claims that Android violates Linux's copyright does, but others dismiss the possibility.

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Does Google's Android smartphone and tablet operating system violate Oracle's patents? Who knows. I'm no software patent lawyer, but I cover intellectual property (IP) lawsuits far too often and I expect it will be years before the courts decide, or, as is more likely Google and Oracle will come to a licensing agreement. But, now one attorney is claiming a much more clear-cut IP law violation: Android violates Linux's copyrights.

Edward J. Naughton, an IP attorney and partner at the international law firm Brown Rudnick, building on the work of Ray Nimmer, a copyright law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, claimed that when Google built Android around Linux and its GNU General Public License version 2 (GPLv2), that "a key component of Android--the Bionic Library [which] is used by all application developers who need to access the core functions of the Linux operating system. Google essentially copied hundreds of files of Linux code that were never meant to be used as is by application developers, 'cleaned' those files using a non-standard and questionable technical process, and then declared that the code was no longer subject to the GPLv2, so that developers could use it without becoming subject to copyleft effect that would normally apply to GPLv2-licensed code taken from the Linux kernel."

Thus, Naughton stated, "I have serious doubts that Google's approach to the Bionic Library works under U.S. copyright law. At a minimum, Google has taken a significant gamble. While that may be fine for Google, because it knows about and understands the risks, many Android developers and device manufacturers are taking that same risk unknowingly. If Google is wrong, the repercussions are significant for the Android ecosystem: the manufacturers and developers working with Android would be incorporating GPLv2-licensed code into applications and components and taking on the copyleft obligations of that license."

He concluded, "What is potentially even more interesting is what happens if Google is right. If that is the case, Google has found a way to take Linux away from the open source community and privatize it. Perhaps the community believes it can rely on Google to "do no evil" with that kind of power, but can it rely on others to be so magnanimous?" Naughton furthers his argument in a more detailed legal analysis of Android's Bionic library (PDF Link).

Page 2: [Does Naughton have a case?] »

Does Naughton have a case?

I asked Google for their response to this claim, but they haven't gotten back to me, so I did some digging of my own. Now, I am not a lawyer, but Naughton is talking largely about the Linux kernel header files, and back in the days when SCO was fighting with IBM over Linux's copyrights, the issue of header files came up. At the time, Eric Raymond, then president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), told me there was a good reason why Unix and Linux's header files looked the same: "Do you know that there is not one bit of executable code in those files? They're pretty much all macros and declarations forced by POSIX and other technical standards." Linus Torvalds also told me at the time that much of the material in the header files was there "because that's specified by several standards, not Unix per se-you'll find those error names in any operating system that has a C compiler."

Can such standards defined files be copyrighted? IBM argued in its case against SCO that the Unix and Linux header files couldn't be copyrighted because of these issues. In the event, it was proved that Novell, and not SCO, owned Unix's copyrights and that issue, to the best of my knowledge, was never settled. Still, speaking for myself, it seems unlikely there's any danger to Android or Android programmers from Linux header file copyrights.

Therefore, this strikes me, as being another example, such as the mistaken claims that Google had illegally copied Oracle/Sun Java files into Android, much ado about nothing.

Eben Moglen, the Columbia University law professor who knows more about the GPL and IP law when he's asleep, then I ever when I'm wide-awake on my best day, told me, "I would say that the issue is a little less complex and a little less dire than it might seem on first acquaintance, while the facts are not quite as simple and therefore the narrative not quite as compelling as one might be led to believe."

This isn't to say that Android developers don't have real IP legal issues to be concerned about. They do. As Black Duck Software, an open-source legal management company points out, the open-source Android platform has "over 165 components and 19 licenses, not all OSI-approved." So, if you feel the need to make sure you're on the right side of IP law, then talk to Black Duck or an experienced, open-source savvy IP law firm. For this particular issue, though, if I were a developer, I wouldn't be calling up my lawyers.

Topics: Android, Smartphones, Operating Systems, Open Source, Mobility, Mobile OS, Linux, Legal, Hardware, Google, Enterprise Software, Software

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  • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

    More troubles with linux, this time its legal. Between all this fighting within the linux community its hard to keep up. One thing for sure is people are staying far away from anything linux related right now. There are just too many stories in the news saying linux is having yet another spat with some company. Best bet is not to use it since you too could find yourself in legal trouble.
    Loverock Davidson
    • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

      @Loverock Davidson
      "One thing for sure is people are staying far away from anything linux related right now. "

      What do you exactly mean by this? As what i see from facts, it's exactly the opposite. 95% of all supercomputers in the world are using linux. And the #1 phone OS right now in terms of market share is Linux (Android). Most websites have servers running linux.

      The funny thing is, I don't see them worried about getting into some kind of legal trouble. I don't see people staying away from Google search because it's servers are running Linux.
      lemuelinchrist
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @lemuelinchrist
        LD is trolling, just ignore.
        choyongpil
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @lemuelinchrist
        You don't see it yet because you turned a blind eye to it. A company would be crazy to implement linux at this point in time given all the bad press linux has gotten lately.
        Loverock Davidson
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @lemuelinchrist An yet the LSE have just switch to Linux, not entirely successfully but they switched.

        An I have not read that much bad press about Linux, in fact it been pretty quite on that front.
        Knowles2
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @Loverock Davidson
        "You don't see it yet because you turned a blind eye to it. A company would be crazy to implement linux at this point in time given all the bad press linux has gotten lately. "

        Are you Kidding me? do you read anything other then your local news and grief sites? Majority of Stock Exchanges are switching over to Linux. The London Exchange is up and running, Singapore is done, and even the NYSE is on the move to switch.

        If I'm correct, you are probably posting these messages off IE6 running WindowsXP. Or maybe running Win7 and using IE9. Either way you are dead wrong.
        Maarek
      • Service consumption is a far cry from software production

        @lemuelinchrist Using the services provided by companies that use Linux is not so much the issue. As a developer, I end up with two choices in the Linux world: never sell my software (only offer it's service, like Google), or sell my software and make the source available. If I don't want to make the source available, I have to find some way around the GPL. This is what Google was trying to do for it's Android developers. As is the case for so many things, 20% produce and 80% consume. There is not equitable give and take in open source and I don't want to be one of the 20% that has to give away my work.
        happyharry_z
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @lemuelinchrist And phones and routers and watches and tv and dvrs (as well as many other set top boxes) and game consoles and even KIDS TOYS. I think if you counted up all of the variants of linux in operation (not that you could, its hard enough to accurately count desktops) linux actually WOULD be the most used OS in the world. The question I suppose is how you define OS, since many of them are so striped down no one would recognize it as an OS, regardless, you don't have OSX, iOS, Windows (7, CE, or any kind) running on routers and watches. And if you CAN find one... well thats my point, there might be ONE. Linux is EVERYWHERE and nobody knows it. And I am NOT an open source fantic. I argue AGAINST linux being a good OS for grandma and the majority of users. Its just not ready for everyone to use; as good as its getting. (I blame the development structure, I think it'll get better... eventually... eventually I think your OS will just be another "application" and whatever flavor you use won't matter, everything will be MOSTLY compatible, finding a free one that suits your fancy will be as difficult as finding a free paint program. People will still pay for advanced features, but most will just use a free one (or whatever came on it when they bought it). Then linux (or another opensource OS) will REALLY be seen... by then though no one will really care. My 20 cents...
        shadfurman
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @Happyharry_z You can sell whatever you want to develop under linux - lots of people do. Just don't develop on top of someone elses GPL'd work.
        radleym
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @lemuelinchrist Linux has very big role at the IT world.

        First people should understand that Linux kernel is the operating system because Linux is monolithic and not a microkernel (what is just a part of the OS).

        Linux OS is used in:

        Android
        Bada
        MeeGo
        WebOS

        Those are just few now famous software systems using Linux. There are lots of phones using Linux in Asia.

        Linux OS is as well used a lot in supercomputers (about 95% as you said), Internet servers (about 60%), Embedded systems (about 60-70% share) and Intranet servers (30-40% share).

        People does not even know that they have somekind machines at home what is ran by Linux. Were it just the DVR machine, ADSL/Cable modem, WLAN router, Home server, NAS and so on.... Linux is everywhere.
        Fri13
    • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

      @Loverock Davidson
      I am a windows developer and I love Windows but do not hate linux. That said, I wish you would not make such biased comments. Microsoft certainly has had its legal issues too. When you make the these types of comments: 1) you sound like a troll, 2) you show a simplistic understanding. 3) And you don't have an open mind. In other words you sound like Mike Cox, Linux Geek or any other fanboys and end up being a total embarrassment to us who are familiar with both worlds but choose Windows. Me I just like the applications better on the Windows side and I like developing software for Windows. Linux though is an excellent OS. I don't think pure-play OSS makes for a good business model but ...
      DevGuy_z
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @DevGuy_z
        Microsoft Windows isn't the issue here, linux is. My comments aren't biased, I just call it the way I see it. There is just so much negativity going on with linux right now its hard to imagine anyone using it.
        Loverock Davidson
      • Thick

        @Loverock Davidson

        Unbelievably thick.
        Economister
      • Mike Cox FanBoy?

        Mike Cox cracks me up. Tech satire at it's best! "my rep says..." hahaha!
        CowLauncher
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @DevGuy_z Well said.
        happyharry_z
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @DevGuy_z

        Loverock Davidson sounds like a troll because he is a troll. Ignore him or bait him as the fancy takes you, but don't take him seriously.

        TRiG.
        Timothy (TRiG)
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @DevGuy_z
        You obviously do NOT understand or get Mike Cox.
        richdave
    • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

      @Loverock Davidson

      Barriers to Linux adoption are quickly disappearing. I'm starting to hope you'll do the same.

      What amazes me is that you can't find one good thing to say about Linux. Even though Ubuntu 10.10 is the only desktop I use, I appreciate the hard work that Microsoft put into Windows 7. It's a very nice operating system.

      Everyone that I've shown Linux to liked it, and several of them loved it and wanted me to install it for them. It takes a bit of skill to install Linux correctly. I wish I could setup and customize Ubuntu for you. Then maybe you would stop mouthing off and gain a little respect for the adorable penguin.

      Seriously though, if you can't mix some positive truth in with the mess you've been spreading, then maybe you should go away. Most of the stuff you've been posting about Linux is fresh, steamy, slightly oval in shape, and lying a few feet below a cow's rump.
      rwillhoite
      • RE: Does Google's Android violate Linux's Copyright?

        @rwillhoite
        You don't need to install ubuntu for me, I tried it, didn't like it and quickly wiped it off the harddrive. I'll say good things and make positive points about linux when there is actually something good about it.
        Loverock Davidson
      • Like I said

        @Loverock Davidson

        THICK
        Economister