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Start-up sued in US courts over GPL 'violation'

Skirmish before Microsoft battle?

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The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) has filed the first US infringement case to defend the General Public License (GPL) version 2. The case has been brought against Monsoon Multimedia, a specialist in video viewing and capturing devices, which has offices in Silicon Valley and in New Delhi.

SFLC legal director Dan Ravicher told The Register: "This case could have far-reaching implications because it's the first case in the US to enforce copyright in GPL."

The case concerns the alleged violation by Monsoon of the GPL license for a set of lightweight Unix utilities that are used in embedded systems called BusyBox. According to the SFLC, Monsoon continued to distribute code that was "substantially similar" to BusyBox without permission of the code's authors - Erik Anders and Rob Landley.

Monsoon lost its right to distribute BusyBox code because it was, according to the SFLC, not adhering to the terms of the GPL; it was not distributing machine readable code that would allow end-users of the product to modify the software. Monsoon also failed to provide machine-readable code for a period of up to three years after shipment.

According to the SFLC, the developers contacted Monsoon in August through one of the company's online forums to alert them of the potential violation. A member of the company's support team confirmed they are not distributing the source code but a subsequent letter to Monsoon has gone unanswered.

The SFLC is seeking damages, fees and injunctive relieve from Monsoon. The final totals will be determined upon completion of the discovery phase of the case.

The founders of Monsoon say they have run and sold other start-ups at great return to investors and shareholders. SFLC says Monsoon's customer roster includes IBM, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Siemens. Monsoon was unavailable for comment.

Unprecedented

As noted before, GPL has been enforced through convention and the goodwill of community fans.

That community spirit has been tested this year by Microsoft's distribution deal with Linux distributor Novell.

According to the Free Software Foundation (FSF), Microsoft has become bound by GPLv3 under the companies' agreement. Microsoft rejects this claim, setting up the protagonists for a fight with only course of action open: prosecution, with a view to establishing a solid precedent either in favor or against GPL. That's a way off.

But in the meantime, the Monsoon case may serve as a lesson to busy start-ups. People can tend to embrace free and open source software, such as Linux, licensed under GPLv2 to reduce costs and quickly build a successful business, without a firm understanding of what they can and cannot do under the software's license. ®

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