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TV maker Vizio sued for alleged copyleft violations — after failing to disclose source code

The Software Freedom Conservancy, a US non-profit, is suing publicly listed US TV maker Vizio for alleged copyleft violations — saying the electronics company is refusing to disclose source code used in its smart TVs’ operating system under two GPL licenses (the GPLv2 and LGPLv2.1). Unusually and in a potentially precedent-setting industry first, the non-profit is bringing the case as a customer, rather than as a copyright holder.

Vizio uses 14 software programmes licensed under the GPLv2 and 11 programmes subject to the LGPLv2.1, including a suite of utilities for Linux and the Linux kernel itself, the Software Freedom Conservancy claims. (These include GNU BASH, GNU awk, bluez, and coreutils, among other open source software and libraries).

Under the terms of the established open source license, the $2 billion by annual revenues TV and soundbar company should share the source code and other technical information that the copyleft GPL requires.

This would, the non-profit notes, allow customers to “repair their own TVs (or hire anyone they want in the free market to repair them); work together with others to protect their private information; improve their TVs for accessibility or any other purpose they think would be helpful for them.” (It points, apropos that privacy comment, that Vizio in 2017, settled a case with the Federal Trade Commission over its collection of consumer data — and onward sale of it — without consent from more than 11 million Vizio smart TV owners.)

According to the non-profit’s executive director Karen M. Sandler, it first raised the issue of non-compliance with the GPL with Vizio in August 2018, engaging in a “year of diplomatic attempts to work with the company” that bore no fruit before Vizio “stopped responding to inquiries altogether as of January 2020.”

The suit itself details engagement throughout 2019 that saw Vizio provide “six purportedly complete versions of the source code… None of Vizio’ s proffered versions of the source code would fully compile”.

Vizio copyleft lawsuit: TV firm appears to blame chipmaker

The TV maker appears to have tried to resolve the issue upstream with its chip supplier before washing its hands of attempts to meet the full license terms and simply cutting off communications with the non-profit. As the complaint itself details: [After a year’s worth of to-and-fro] “On January 28, 2020, Vizio’s representative sent Software Freedom Conservancy an email expressing hope that Vizio’s chip supplier ‘will have more substantial updates for you in the next few weeks, and we will continue to press them to move this project along as their staff returns to the office.’ This was the last communication Software Freedom Conservancy received from Vizio.”

(Vizio had not responded to a request for comment as The Stack published. We will update this story when we receive it. Critics say the costs would not be onerous to ship source code with its binaries, or have a process for dealing with requests for it. Companies like video streamer Roku provide theirs in a simple Box folder).

As OpenUK’s Amanda Brock noted: “Every device each of us uses today has open source software in it. If you scroll through a well-managed app, from something like the Plenty of Fish dating app, or look at a device manual from a reputable device manufacturer, you will find pages of open source licences. This is simply good governance as required for open source licence compliance. It’s not particularly burdensome and most companies today do a good job of this, which is why litigation against organisations like Vizio doesn’t happen every day.

“…The GPL licence offers specific benefits to modify, improve, repair and fix the software and this is true of Linux which is distributed under the GPL. Smartcast, the software on Vizio’s TVs, is based on this. 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. Most users of Linux respect the GPL requirements around licensing and making the source available, so don’t face these litigation issues. 

She added: “OpenUK is going to be hosting an Open Technology for Sustainability Day at COP26 on 11 November, because we believe that for technology to be sustainable it has to be open. [Due disclosure: The Stack is a sponsor of the open hardware category of OpenUK’s annual awards]. The very nature of open source, making the source available, opening up technology to repair and recycle in a circular economy, allows recycling and reuse and creating collective equity avoids the need for device obsolescence and extends device life.”

The complaint, in brief

“Defendants’ smart TVs are manufactured and distributed with the SmartCast Programs at Issue resident on them. In distributing and selling their smart TVs, Defendants distribute to purchasers the SmartCast Programs at Issue in an executable form, on a chip located inside the smart TV. Defendants do not accompany their smart TVs with any source code conesponding to any of the SmartCast Programs at Issue contained therein. Defendants do not accompany their smart TVs with a written offer to supply, upon demand, the source code corresponding to the SmartCast Programs at Issue. The smart TVs contain several “works that use the Library” that link to a SmartCast Program at Issue subject to the LGPLv2.1. Yet, the Defendants do not accompany the smart TVs with the object code or source code corresponding to that program so that users can modify the library and relink it to produce a modified executable, or a written offer for such materials.

The full complaint can be found here.

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Ed Targett

Ed Targett is founder of The Stack. He has previously served as editor at Tech Monitor, Computer Business Review, and Roubini Global Economics.

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