In today’s digital age, the question isn’t whether there is open source software being used in a company’s products, but how it is being used and what license governs its use. Open source is ubiquitous. Despite its widespread use over the past decade, the provisions of open source licenses have been interpreted by only a handful of U.S. and foreign courts. Open source-related disputes do not usually reach court as open source advocacy groups that enforce open source license provisions often work out a resolution between the parties without litigation.
However, one recent open source dispute has reached the courthouse. As discussed below, a new case filed in California state court could test the enforcement of one of the most common family of open source licenses, the GNU General Public Licenses or “GPL.” If the plaintiff is successful, the case could have the effect of expanding enforcement of GPL licenses under the rubric of consumer protection and allow a broad range of parties to bring claims under the GPL as third party beneficiaries of those licenses.
Last week, the Software Freedom Conservancy, Inc. (“SFC”) filed a complaint against smart-TV manufacturer Vizio, Inc. (“Vizio”) alleging a failure to comply with the GNU General Public License Version 2 (“GPLv2”) and GNU Lesser General Public License Version 2.1 (“LGPL v2.1”) (collectively, the “GPL Licenses”). SFC alleges that, over the last four years, Vizio distributed smart TVs that included executable versions of Vizio’s “SmartCast code. The SmartCast code, it alleged, contained modifications to the Linux kernel and other code obtained by Vizio pursuant to the GPL Licenses. SFC asserts that Vizio did not release the corresponding modified source code (as enhanced, modified or otherwise altered by Vizio) or accompany their smart TVs with a written offer to supply such code upon demand, as is required under the GPL Licenses. (Software Freedom Conservancy, Inc. v. Vizio, Inc., No. 30-2021-01226723 (Cal. Super. Orange Cty Filed Oct. 19, 2021)).