Software Freedom Conservancy sues TV maker Vizio for 'GPL infringement'

Companies using free-as-in-freedom software should meet their obligations, lawsuit says

The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), a non-profit which supports and defends free software, has taken legal action against Californian TV manufacturer Vizio Inc, claiming "repeated failures to fulfill even the basic requirements of the General Public License (GPL)."

Member projects of the SFC include the Debian Copyright Aggregation Project, BusyBox, Git, GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers, Homebrew, Mercurial, OpenWrt, phpMyAdmin, QEMU, Samba, Selenium, Wine, and many more.

The GPL Compliance Project is described as "comprised of copyright holders in the kernel, Linux, who have contributed to Linux under its license, the GPLv2. These copyright holders have formally asked Conservancy to engage in compliance efforts for their copyrights in the Linux kernel."

The lawsuit alleges that Vizio's TV products, using a system called Smartcast, "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 GPL is a copyleft licence, the terms of which say that "each time you redistribute the Program (or any work based on the Program), the recipient automatically receives a license from the original licensor to copy, distribute or modify the Program subject to these terms and conditions." The terms apply not only to the original GPL code used, but to any code derived from it.

Vizio described Smartcast as the "platform that powers every new VIZIO TV. Instantly access endless entertainment straight out-of-the-box with the latest technology that only gets smarter with automatic updates."

The SFC's lawsuit "seeks no monetary damages, but instead seeks access to the technical information that the copyleft licenses require Vizio to provide to all customers who purchase its TVs." The full complaint, filed in California, is here [PDF].

The lawsuit is motivated in part by the desire to extend the life of hardware that might otherwise be discarded when the software it uses is no longer supported by the manufacturer.

According to the SFC's statement, the issue was first raised with Vizio in August 2018. Vizio "stopped responding to enquiries" in January 2020, the SFC claimed, and "by July 2021, the TV model that we originally complained was non-compliant was discontinued."

According to the lawsuit, the last (January 2020) communication from Vizio expressed hope that Vizio's chip supplier "will have more substantial updates for you in the next few weeks."

Also in the complaint, various cases are instanced where employees of SFC had purchased Vizio TVs and "after unboxing and carefully examining... found no source code or written offer for any source code."

The SFC claimed Vizio should provide this code as well as informing consumers of their rights under the GPL.

Specifically, the legal action demands that the code is made available "in a format that may be compiled without undue difficulty... complete source code means all source code for all modules contained in such version or versions of the SmartCast Programs at issue, plus any associated interface definition files, plus the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable."

The conservancy referenced the OpenWrt project as an example where community-maintained, open-source software improves the functionality of commercial hardware.

A press kit [PDF] produced by the SFC complains that "companies who build electronics products can surreptitiously and arbitrarily disable the software." The SFC claimed that this is the first case that "focuses on the rights of individual consumers as third-party beneficiaries of the GPL."

In the past, the SFC said, "the plaintiffs have always been copyright holders of the specific GPL code."

The case could set an important precedent since the SFC claims that not only Vizio but "most products employ copylefted software, but they don't meet their obligations."

How does the SFC know that Smartcast uses GPL code? The press kit referred to "extensive research" on the core components of Smartcast, and states that Smartcast is Linux-based, that "multiple copies of the Linux kernel appear in the firmware," and that other GPL and LGPL (Lesser General Public License) programs were found.

The full complaint referred to specific components including BusyBox, a member project of the SFC, and other well-known libraries such as ffmpeg, bluez, and systemd.

The lawsuit is supported by various people well known in open source. Bob Young, co-founder of Red Hat, said: "Any company benefiting from the excellent GPL'd software in Linux-based systems but who refuse to follow the straightforward licensing terms… harms themselves."

Author and activist Cory Doctorow said: "Vizio's persistent unwillingness to obey the law and do its duty is an existential threat to the very idea that we can live our lives in ways that enhance our welfare, not some distant shareholder's."

Linux kernel maintainer Kees Cook said: "I'd long wondered why GPL enforcement took the route of needing the involvement of a copyright holder. The real power of the GPL comes from the ability of the end user to ask for the source code so they can continue to improve on the work and share it with other."

The CEO of repair site iFixit, Kyle Wiens, said: "Vizio smart TVs are a trap!"

Amanda Brock, CEO of the UK-based open source advocacy company OpenUK, said: "Litigation against organisations like Vizio doesn't happen every day and is indeed noteworthy... Smartcast, the software on Vizio's TVs, is based on [Linux]. That means that, irrespective of and in addition to any consumer law requiring the right to repair, under the GPL licence attached to the software, you can repair and hopefully extend your device's lifetime."

The Register has asked Vizio for comment. ®

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