The Free Software Foundation filed its first-ever copyright lawsuit yesterday, against Cisco Systems. The FSF accuses Cisco of not complying with the terms of the FSF's popular viral license, the General Public License, in the company's Linksys line of products. Anyone who distributes software or products that are GPL-licensed must provide source code when distributing it; by falling down on the GPL-vigilance front, "Cisco has denied its users their right to share and modify the software," say FSF lawyers.
The non-profit FSF has never before gone to court as a plaintiff to enforce the GPL, the license that founder Richard Stallman has called his "hack" of copyright law. But it has provided pro-bono legal services to open source developers who want to enforce their own GPL'd code, most notably in the BusyBox litigations.
A Cisco spokesperson stressed the company's commitment to open source, and responded that "We are currently reviewing the issues raised in the suit but believe we are substantially in compliance. We have always worked very closely with the FSF and hope to reach a resolution agreeable to the company and the foundation." (via Ars Technica)
The GPL compliance-guy at FSF, Brett Smith, says that Cisco "never put in the effort that was necessary" to become GPL-compliant. Smith wrote yesterday that getting Cisco to comply has turned into a "five-years-running game of Whack-a-Mole." Still, Smith's description of the problem sounds more like slow customer service than GPL-hatin'. After acknowledging that source code is clearly marked and available on the Linksys web site, Smith says that "source code downloads are often incomplete or out-of-date," adding that FSF "regularly hear[s] about requests [for code] going unfulfilled."
FSF's press release on the lawsuit has a link to the complaint. Early reactions: Ars Technica calls the turn of events an "embarrassing PR black eye for Cisco," but suggests that it won't last long, considering Cisco's "extensive contributions to the Linux kernel and long-standing commitment to open source platforms." CNET's Matt Asay believes that "given the FSF's nonlitigious track record, I suspect that Cisco is not, in fact, in compliance with the GPL." At Techdirt, Mike Masnick suggests that some of FSF's demands might be a bit much, like the insistence on an in-house "compliance officer" and issuance of a mass mea culpas to customers about its former violations.
Illustration (c) 2004 Free Software Foundation via Wikimedia