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Attorney: More disclosure will end GPL case

Dutch company Sitecom can get itself out of legal hot water, if it releases all the necessary software to comply with the General Public License, an attorney says.

A Dutch seller of a wireless networking product could get itself out of legal hot water, if it publishes some information on how to install its software, the programmer's attorney said Friday.

Harald Welte, an open-source programmer, sued Sitecom for its use of netfilter/iptables, software he helped write, in a wireless networking product. In April, a three-judge panel granted him a preliminary victory the case; the first time, according to legal experts, that a widely used open-source license called the General Public License has been enforced.

The GPL provides a legal and philosophical foundation for Linux and many other widely used open-source programs. The license's strength is one sore point for the SCO Group, which, in its legal battle with IBM, asserts that Linux violates its Unix intellectual property.

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Sitecom said in a statement that it's now in compliance with GPL, which governs the Netfilter software. But Welte's attorney, Till Jaeger of German law firm Jaschinski Biere Brexl, believes that Sitecom needs to go one step further.

The GPL requires that a company distributing GPL-covered software in an executable form also make available the program's underlying source code. To comply with the GPL, Sitecom has made available for download a 64MB package of files that includes the source code for the product in question, the WL-122 wireless router.

But Sitecom hasn't released all the necessary software, Jaeger said in an interview. Specifically, it hasn't released programming instructions called scripts that are required for installation. If it does release the scripts, Sitecom will be in compliance, he said.

When a company distributes a product that includes GPL-covered software in executable form, the "complete source code" must be available for the GPL-covered software. According to the GPL, "For an executable work, complete source code means all the source code for all modules it contains, plus any associated interface definition files, plus the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable."

Sitecom said earlier this week that it believes that it's already in compliance but declined to further comment for this story.

According to a file Sitecom offers for download, the WP-122 uses not just netfilter integrated with uClinux, an "embedded" version of Linux for electronic devices, which, like mainstream Linux, is governed by the GPL. Other GPL-covered software in the device handles tasks such as assigning Internet addresses, processing management commands, translating Internet addresses, communicating with the device's PCI subsystem, and bridging between broadband network and a home network.

On Thursday, Jaeger said he received a letter from Sitecom's attorneys, saying they object to the preliminary injunction. Specifically, they argued that the alleged GPL violations should be taken up not with Sitecom's German subsidiary but with its headquarters in the Netherlands.

The objection, which will be the subject of a later court hearing, doesn't raise the GPL as an issue, Jaeger said. In the letter, the Sitecom lawyers also asked for more time to deal with the overall issue, he added.

According to the court's preliminary injunction, if Sitecom doesn't comply with the GPL, it might have to pay a fine of 5 euros to 250,000 euros for each product shipped, Jaeger said.

One complication in the case is that Jaeger believes that Sitecom's product probably uses others' technology. "The software is probably not written by Sitecom itself but by a Taiwanese or a U.S. chip manufacturer," Jaeger said. "We are forcing German companies and distributors to put pressure upon the manufacturers."