Software Freedom Conservancy wins big step forward for open-source rights

SFC v. Vizio lawsuit ruling shows the GPL acts both as a copyright license and as a contractual agreement.
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), recently sued major TV vendor Vizio for abusing the GPL with its Linux-based SmartCast OS. Vizio replied that the SFC had no right to ask for the source code. On May 13, however, the SFC succeeded in federal court with its motion to have its lawsuit against Vizio remanded back to Superior Court in Orange County, CA.

Doesn't sound like that big a deal? Think again. The important part of the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Josephine L. Staton stated that SFC's claim "that the [GPLv2] enforcement of 'an additional contractual promise separate and distinct from any rights provided by the copyright laws' amounts to an 'extra element,' and therefore, SFC's claims are not preempted." 

Karen M. Sandler, SFC's executive director, explained, "The ruling is a watershed moment in the history of copyleft licensing. This ruling shows that the GPL agreements function both as copyright licenses and as a contractual agreement." Sandler added that even in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) legal community people argue incorrectly that the GPL and other copyleft licenses only function as copyright licenses. This decision clearly states that the GPL also acts as a contract. 

Further, this decision makes it the first case to show individual consumers have rights to the source code as third-party beneficiaries of the GPL. 

The SFC won their argument that the Vizio SmartCast TV operating system contained software that Vizio unfairly appropriated from a community of developers. Specifically, SFC argued that Vizio used Linux's source code and other open-source software, such as BusyBox, U-Boot, bash, gawk, tar, Glibc, and FFmpeg in its SmartCast OS TV firmware. Since these programs are protected under the GPL version 2 (GPLv2) and the Lesser GPL (LGPL), consumers, and not just developers, have the right to modify, improve, share, and reinstall modified versions of the software.

"We are asking the court to require Vizio to make good on its obligations under copyleft compliance requirements," said Sandler. Previously the GPL had been upheld in court for Linux and open-source developers who were copyright holders of the code. In this case, SFC sought to show that it's not just the copyright holders, but also the users who are entitled to the rights granted to them by the GPL.

In this lawsuit, the SFC isn't seeking monetary damages. Instead, all the SFC wants is for Vizio to provide the source code to all customers who purchase its TVs. Specifically, the plaintiff is asking for the technical information via "specific performance" rather than "damages."

Will many Vizio customers want this code? No, probably not. But that's what's at stake here. It's for that reason this decision is a game-changer for open-source rights.

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