Software Freedom Conservancy sues Vizio for GPL violations

The major US TV vendor Vizio stands accused of failing to fulfill the basic requirements of the General Public License (GPL) in its TV source code.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), a non-profit organization that promotes open-source software and defends the free software General Public License (GPL), has sued major TV vendor Vizio for abusing the GPL. 

The SFC is suing Vizio because its SmartCast OS is based on Linux. Linux's source code is protected under the GPL version 2 (GPLv2). Besides the Linux kernel, the other GPL'd and Lesser GPL (LGPL)'d code in SmartCast includes U-Boot, bash, gawk, tar, Glibc, and FFmpeg. In short, Vizio is using the code without permission. 

This can't come as any surprise. Vizio has been made well aware of this problem. The company was first informed that it had violated the GPLv2 for not releasing SmartCast OS's source code by the SFC in August 2018. After over a year of diplomatic attempts to work with the company, the Conservancy declared that not only was the company still refusing to comply, but it had stopped responding to inquiries altogether as of January 2020.

The GPL is a copyleft license that ensures end users the freedom to run, study, share and modify the software code. Copyleft is a kind of software licensing that leverages the restrictions of copyright, but intends to promote sharing, using, and repairing the code. That is to say, all Vizio had to do to honor the license and use the code to their heart's content was to make SmartCast OS's source code available to others under the GPLv2. It's not complicated. 

Vizio is far from the first company to have been found in violation of the GPLv2. Beginning in 2007, cases were made -- and won -- against companies violating the license. Most of these cases have been against consumer electronic companies

Before, these cases were made to defend the rights of developers. The SFC is taking a new tack in this lawsuit. It's being made as the purchaser of a product, which illegally contains copylefted code. This approach makes it the first legal case that focuses on the rights of individual consumers as third-party GPL beneficiaries. According to this lawsuit, you as a buyer also have the right to access the source code.

Why? Because without the source code, neither you nor anyone you might hire, is able to fix the software if there's a problem or Vizio stops supporting it. According to SFC: 

[The] right-to-repair software is essential for everyone, even if you don't know how to make the repairs yourself. Once upon a time, we had lots of local vendors that could repair and fix TVs when they broke. That's because TVs were once analog hardware devices that could be taken apart and understood merely by inspection from someone with sufficient knowledge. TVs today are simply a little computer attached to a large display. As such, the most important part that needs repairs is usually when the software malfunctions, has bugs, or otherwise needs upgrades and changes. The GPL was specifically designed to assure such fixes could be done, and that consumers (or agents those consumers hire on the open market) can make such repairs and changes.

In short, access to GPL code, now that software is so important in most devices, is also a right-to-repair issue. "That's what makes this litigation unique and historic in terms of defending consumer rights," said Karen M. Sandler, the SFC's executive director. "We are asking the court to require Vizio to make good on its obligations under copyleft compliance requirements," says Sandler. The SFC hopes to demonstrate that it's not just the copyright holders, but also the users who are entitled to rights.

Without that code, Vizio, the SFC claims, has the power to disable your TV at any time it wants, over your internet connection, without your knowledge or consent. If Vizio complied with the GPL, all would not be lost in this scenario: volunteers and third-party entities could take GPL'd software as a basis for a replacement for Smartcast. Without these rights, consumers are essentially forced to purchase new devices when they could be repaired.

Sounds impossible? Not so. Vendors have deactivated devices in the past when they no longer want to support them and they will again. They've also removed some of their functionality. For example, Amazon in 2016 removed device encryption from its Fire OS tablets.

Seems unlikely to you that even if the code was available that anyone could create an open-source TV code? Please. Almost all smart TVs and streaming devices are already built on Linux and open-source software. For example, LG's top-rated TVs use the Linux-based WebOS.

Besides, we've already seen consumer and business electronics get great free operating systems and firmware updates. The SFC points out that:

Years ago, people said the very same thing about wireless routers, which had only partially GPL'd firmwares. However, thanks to actions to enforce the GPL in the wireless router market, the OpenWrt project was born! That project is now the premiere replacement software for wireless routers from almost every major manufacturer on the market. There is now healthy competition and even occasional cooperation between a hobbyist and community-led firmware project and the wireless router manufacturers. We believe the same can happen for TVs, but the first step is assuring the entire TV market complies with the GPL.

Earlier after a 2009 GPL lawsuit against Samsung and other companies, an open-source operating system, SamyGO, was released for that generation of TVs. Then, as now, it's all about opening the code as per the GPL's requirements. 

Indeed, the lawsuit seeks no monetary damages. Instead, it only asks that Vizio gives access to the technical information that the copyleft licenses have always required.

"Software Freedom Conservancy is standing up for customers who are alienated and exploited by the technology on which they increasingly rely," continued Sandler, adding that the lawsuit will also educate consumers about their right to repair their devices. 

Sandler added, "The global supply chain shortages that have affected everything from cars to consumer electronics underscore one of the reasons why it is important to be able to repair products we already own. Even without supply chain challenges, the forced obsolescence of devices like TVs isn't in the best interest of the consumer or even the planet. This is another aspect of what we mean by 'ethical technology.' Throwing away a TV because its software is no longer supported by its manufacturer is not only wasteful, it has dire environmental consequences. Consumers should have more control over this, and they would if companies like Vizio played by the rules."

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