Saturday, July 28, 2007

Skype, the GPL scofflaw

For once, a story about Skype that has nothing to do with its business model, its impact on the telecom industry, pushback by powerful incumbents, or anything else having to with its real business.

This week, the blogs and Linux sites are abuzz because Skype supposedly lost a court case for violating the terms of the GPL (v2). The Inquirer (of Britain) started on Wednesday, then PC World on Thursday, then Linux Devices on Friday. Linux Devices notes that all claims about the case trace to an article in one German magazine, Golem, and can’t be independently verified, and it seems to be the only story with significant original reporting.


The purported case revolves not around Skype’s software, but its distribution of a Linux-based Wi-Fi phone, SMC’s WSKP100; a separate action is also said to be pending against SMC Networks, although Linux Devices could not verify that. This is a typical embedded GPL dispute, ala TiVo or anything else.

If we assume that everything reported is true, there were several interesting things about the case. First, it was about a marginal violation of how the code was distributed, and not something about the core compulsory sharing (some call “viral”) proposition of the GPL: once you put your code with my code, your code has to adhere to my rules. It doesn’t seem like Skype would ever be a good test case, since they already provide their source code under at least some conditions.

Second, that the case was brought by a German gadfly,, and not the Free Software Foundation. Finally, it adds to the many cases we have in Europe, but AFAIK we still don’t have a relevant legal precedent in the U.S., or, even more importantly, in China.

So are there no GPL zealots in the US (unlikely) or China (probably not worth dying for)? Are there no comparable violations in the US (also unlikely) or China (darn near impossible)? Or are the relevant courts not as interested as German courts in enforcing compulsory sharing?

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