Linux programmer wins legal victory

German court supports effort to enforce the GPL, which governs countless projects in the free and open-source software realms.

A Linux programmer has reported a legal victory in Germany in enforcing the General Public License, which governs countless projects in the free and open-source software realms.

A Munich district court on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction barring Fortinet, a maker of multipurpose security devices, from distributing products that include a Linux component called "initrd" to which Harald Welte holds the copyright.

In addition to being a Linux programmer, Welte runs an operation called the GPL Violations project that attempts to encourage companies shipping products incorporating GPL software to abide by the license terms. The license lets anyone use GPL software in products without paying a fee, but it requires that they provide the underlying source code for the GPL components when they ship such a product.

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What's new:
A German court agreed with a Linux programmer's contention that a California security appliance maker called Fortinet needs to comply with the terms of the General Public License.

Bottom line:
The case adds new legal weight to the GPL, the legal foundation for Linux and countless other projects in the open-source and free software realms. It also shows some computer industry growing pains from adopting open-source software.

More stories on the GPL

The case highlights the ease with which open-source software can spread across the computing industry--but also the growing pains that companies face as they adjust to new legal concepts underlying the collaborative programming approach.

Fortinet, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., said in a statement it's addressing the issue but is surprised that Welte resorted to legal action.

"Fortinet recently became aware of Mr. Welte's allegations and has, in good faith, been diligently working with him to resolve this matter outside of the German court system. Fortinet is actively taking steps to ensure that its products are compliant with GPL requirements. Therefore, Fortinet is surprised that Mr. Welte pursued a preliminary injunction against Fortinet in Germany and believes that this is an unnecessary action," the company said. "Fortinet is continuing its efforts to expeditiously resolve this matter with Mr. Welte."

Welte has said he doesn't object to corporate use of open-source software; he just wants it to be done properly. Welte first notifies companies of his accusations before beginning legal action, he said. In the case of Fortinet, the GPL Violations project informed the company of its concerns March 17, but "out-of-court negotiations on a settlement failed to conclude in a timely manner," the project said in a statement.

In March, Welte sent similar letters to multiple companies exhibiting at the CeBit trade show. And a year ago, he won a ruling against Sitecom in a case similar to that of Fortinet.

Fortinet uses Linux in the operating system included in its FortiGate and FortiWiFi products, the project said. "FortiOS is using the Linux operating system kernel and numerous other free software products that are licensed exclusively under the GNU GPL. This information was not disclosed by Fortinet," the GPL Violations project said.

Most actions by GPL Violation have been against European or Asian companies, and the Sitecom and Fortinet cases don't have direct repercussions outside Germany. But the actions this year also have targeted corporations in the United States--an indication that case law around the GPL could also start building soon in the world's largest computing technology market.

"Generally, corporations are becoming more conscious of the issues surrounding the GPL," said Brian Kelly, an intellectual-property attorney with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. "The process of clarifying the

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