Can Open-Source Software enforcement help save the planet?

Can Open-Source Software enforcement help save the planet?

The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) has sued smart TV manufacturer Vizio for alleged breaches of open-source software (OSS) licenses.

Vizio smart TVs use the Linux operating system, which includes OSS.

As opensource.com explains,

Open source software is software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance.

"Source code" is the part of software that most computer users don't ever see; it's the code computer programmers can manipulate to change how a piece of software—a "program" or "application"—works. Programmers who have access to a computer program's source code can improve that program by adding features to it or fixing parts that don't always work correctly.

Just because open-source software is available for everyone to inspect, modify, and enhance, that doesn’t mean people can do whatever they want with it.

OSS is licensed under various terms. As Synopsys helpfully explains,

Permissive. Permissive licenses are also known as “Apache style” or “BSD style.” They contain minimal requirements about how the software can be modified or redistributed. This type of software license is perhaps the most popular license used with free and open source software. Aside from the Apache License and the BSD License, another common variant is the MIT License.

LGPL. The GNU Lesser General Public License allows you to link to open source libraries in your software. If you simply compile or link an LGPL-licensed library with your own code, you can release your application under any license you want, even a proprietary license. But if you modify the library or copy parts of it into your code, you’ll have to release your application under similar terms as the LGPL.

Copyleft. Copyleft licenses are also known as reciprocal licenses or restrictive licenses. The most well-known example of a copyleft or reciprocal license is the GPL. These licenses allow you to modify the licensed code and distribute new works based on it, as long as you distribute any new works or adaptations under the same software license. For example, a component’s license might say the work is free to use and distribute for personal use only. So any derivative you create would also be limited to personal use only. (A derivative is any new software you develop that contains the component.)

As Synopsys notes, just because you find it on the internet, that doesn’t mean it’s free to use however you want:

Code that doesn’t have an explicit license is NOT automatically in the public domain. This includes code snippets you find on the internet.

According to the SFC,

The lawsuit alleges that Vizio’s TV products, built on its SmartCast system, contain software that Vizio unfairly appropriated from a community of developers who intended consumers to have very specific rights to modify, improve, share, and reinstall modified versions of the software.

The OSS license at issue in the case is the GPL. As the SFC explains,

The GPL is a copyleft license that ensures end users the freedom to run, study, share, and modify the software. Copyleft is a kind of software licensing that leverages the restrictions of copyright, but with the intent to promote sharing (using copyright licensing to freely use and repair software).

The SFC isn’t seeking monetary damages from Vizio. Instead, it’s seeking “access to the technical information that the copyleft licenses require Vizio to provide to all customers who purchase its TVs.’

The SFC wants consumers to have this information so that they can exercise their “right to repair” their devices rather than dump them in landfills when they stop working.

As the SFC executive director said,

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.

Categories: Licensing