Sunday, 20 March 2011 09:38

Google GPL violation claims speculative: expert

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The claim that Google may be in violation of the GNU General Public Licence is a speculative hypothesis that needs more study before it can be taken seriously, a GPL expert and free software activist says.


Bradley Kuhn said most of what had been written about the licence violation claim was "poorly drafted speculation".

A few days back, iTWire, among other media outlets, reported that an IP lawyer had claimed Google could be in violation of the GPL because the Bionic C library, the default C library in Android, imports "scrubbed" kernel headers from Linux.

Kuhn said no-one had done the "incredibly-time consuming work to figure out anything approaching a definitive answer!"

He described the expanded research note written by lawyer Edward Naughton, as "a position paper for a research project yet to be done". He did not mention Houston Law Center law professor Raymond Nimmer who had flagged the same claim on his IP Info blog.

Naughton's paper presented some interesting points that could serve as the starting point for much deeper analysis and study, Kuhn said, adding that he found it "disturbing" that it was presented as though it was a complete analysis.

While Kuhn gave credit to Naughton for, at one point, admitting that more detailed and painstaking analysis was needed to make a definitive claim, he said the lawyer also indulged in sweeping conclusions which led others to draw the wrong conclusion.

He pointed to this statement by Naughton: "The 750 Linux kernel header files '¦ define a complex overarching structure, an application programming interface, that is thoughtfully and cleverly designed, and almost assuredly protected by copyright."

Kuhn said this was "a hypothesis, that would have (to) be tested and proved with evidence generated by the careful line-by-line analysis Naughton himself admits is necessary.

"Yet, he doesn't acknowledge that fact in his conclusions, leaving his readers (and IMO he's expecting to dupe lots of readers unsophisticated on these issues) with the impression he's shown something he hasn't.

"For example, one of my first questions would be whether or not Bionic uses only parts of Linux headers that are required by specification to write POSIX programs, a question that Naughton doesn't even consider."



Kuhn said Naughton also indulged in alarmist speculation with the claim that if Google had managed to remove all copyrightable material from the kernel, it had removed all restrictions imposed by GPLv2 on the kernel.

"If it turns out that Google has succeeded in making sure that the GPLv2 does not apply to Bionic, then Google's success is substantially more narrow," Kuhn said.

"The success would be merely the extraction of the non-copyrightable facts that any C library needs to know about Linux to make a binary run when Linux happens to be the kernel underneath."

He pointed out that the same thing had been done twice before with glibc and uClibc, both under a weak LGPL licence. Google had merely provided a third alternative.

There was no expectation on anyone's part that programs that interfaced with Linux (the kernel) solely as user-space programs would come under the same licence as the kernel. And, he pointed out, comparing what Google had done to other techniques used to circumvent the GPL was "just link-baiting that borders on trolling".

While Kuhn felt that Google should have used one of the existing libraries instead of writing its own, he added that "the worst that we might be able to accuse Google of is inadvertently taking a copyright-infringing short-cut".

And if someone did all the research necessary to prove that Google had indeed taken a copyright-infringing shortcut, Kuhn said he was confident that it could all be cleared up easily.

He added" "...the implications of the whole thing wouldn't go beyond: 'It's possible to write your own C library for Linux that isn't covered by the GPLv2' '” a fact which we've all known for a decade and a half anyway."

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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