GPL Round 1: FSF vs Cisco

It’s hard to believe it, but despite the fact that the FSF has been around for more than 20 years, their recently filed suit against Cisco is the very first time that they will test their ability to uphold their copyright under GPL and LGPL in a court of law.

The Free Software Foundation, headed by Richard Stallman, is the copyright holder for a number of software modules including GCC and the Gnu C Library. These modules are at the centre of a long-standing disagreement between the FSF and Cisco. After 5 years of working with Cisco to ‘help’ them towards compliance, Stallman and Co. have finally spat the dummy and called in the lawyers.

I think this is a more important legal battle than the famous clash between Sun and Microsoft all those years ago over Java licensing. The outcome will have enormous consequences, whichever way it goes. If it goes all the way to court and the FSF wins, the warning sound that has been tinkling in the distance, like a country church’s bell in a gentle breeze, will transform into a fire truck’s klaxon screeching down Main Street, sending people scuttling for cover. If Cisco wins, a funeral bell will toll instead, for the GPL and many of the ideas behind it.

IANAL disclaimers aside, there are plenty of opinions out there on the legal enforceability or otherwise of GPL/LGPL, or for that matter any OSS license. Some of the arguments presented turn on whether or not contract law (with it’s large body of case history) can be invoked, or whether only copyright law (which apparently doesn’t have much to say about conditions enforced by copyright licenses) will come into play. But the truth is that nobody knows what the outcome will be.

I’m glad this action is being taken. We could all do with a little clarity. The FUD surrounding OSS licensing needs to be cleared away and replaced with a reasoned and purposeful response from the software development industry. I’ll be buying ringside seats to this prize fight.

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