Cisco discovers the FSF wasn't joking

The Free Software Foundation has patiently worked with the networking giant on General Public License compliance for too long. No more.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
2 min read

When I read that the Free Software Foundation is suing Cisco Systems over alleged violations of the GNU General Public License (GPL), my first reaction was, "Put that subpoena back in your pocket, FSF." A copy of the complaint is available on PDF.

After all, I figured that it was yet another BusyBox claim and, while I believe that everyone - including open-source developers - has a right and duty to protect its intellectual property, it has seemed lately that the open-source world is becoming as litigious as the proprietary world, and that's not a good thing.

However, reading OStatic's summary of the suit reminded me that for the FSF has never been particularly litigious, never visiting the courtroom in 15 years of license enforcement. For the FSF, through the Software Freedom Law Center, to take this action suggests that things must be very bad.

The FSF has been working with Cisco since 2003 to ensure compliance of its Linksys routers, but five years later, Cisco still apparently can't get its open-source act together. Cisco claims to be "disappointed" by the legal action, but it can't pretend to be surprised. I know Eben Moglen of the FSF and Software Freedom Law Center reasonably well: he's not the sort of person to sue unless he has exhausted all other avenues of mediation.

Brett Smith, licensing compliance engineer at the FSF, explains:

We began working with Cisco in 2003 to help them establish a process for complying with our software licenses, and the initial changes were very promising. Unfortunately, they never put in the effort that was necessary to finish the process, and now, five years later, we have still not seen a plan for compliance. As a result, we believe that legal action is the best way to restore the rights we grant to all users of our software.

In a statement, Cisco indicated that it believes itself to be in "substantial compliance" with the GPL, but that's like saying it's almost a virgin. Either you are, or you're not. In this case, given the FSF's nonlitigious track record, I suspect that Cisco is not, in fact, in compliance with the GPL. This, however, is easy to fix: release the code.

It's not that hard, Cisco. You benefit from open source by modifying freely available open-source software and including it in your products. When you distribute those products, you have an obligation under the very same licenses that gave you the code in the first place. Time to brush up on Open Source Licensing 101.