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Thou shalt fear the GPL...

The first GPL (General Public License) lawsuit ever in the U.S. saw the light of the day. The Software Freedom Law Center was the one to make the official announcement. The complaint was filed by two main developers of the awesome set of Unix utilities called BusyBox. As it appears, the Monsoon Multimedia company redistributed BusyBox without supplying the source code, as specified in the GPL version 2.

...but only a little
The news made me wonder about two things. First and foremost, I asked myself how hard could it really be to break the terms of the GPL. You get BusyBox free of charge, you get the source, you get everything. There's nothing to steal. So, my best guess is that the people at Monsoon Multimedia must have tried really hard to do something illegal related to BusyBox. Among the few restrictions of the GPL, there is the fact that along with the software, you also need to provide the source code of whatever was GPLed before you had taken it. This is what generated the whole issue and has nothing to do with the edited or added code. One can even release the rest of the code under another type of license and be closed source.

So the problem was that Monsoon Multimedia had used the code written by the BusyBox developers and had never distributed the source code. I have no clue as to why someone would do that, because we can all browse through the source of BusyBox anyway, so they did not actually hide anything from us. However, a little investigation is required to find out which pieces of code were used, but I am sure that for the original developers it was a breeze. This seems more like an issue regarding lack of honor rather than copyright infringement. It's fine to use BusyBox, it's free, you can change it and even sell it if you want, but only if you give the developers some credit. That's all they ask for in return.

The second thought that ran through my mind was: how many times was GPL code used illegally without anyone taking notice? My best guess is that it's a pretty common practice. Because most of the commercial software come closed-source it's hard to spot code similarities. Open-source freelance developers have very little time to develop applications (if at all) and if a company releases an application with similar features, it’s highly possible they have only "borrowed" the idea to make money out of it. And there's nothing wrong with that. Developing and selling something are two very different things and a software company has to deal with a number of issues a developer does not want to deal with or cannot deal with. So, a total re-coding of the application is legal as long as no patents and intellectual property rights are violated. Because it's possible to re-code something with ease, no one takes notice and with the lack of investigation time and interest, many pieces of GPL code illegally disappear into the closed-source, commercial applications.

Because this first lawsuit made its way into existence, it has been done at least once. There is no way of knowing if it has ever happened before, but I think it's very likely. It's a pity that this situation can be solved with relative ease. This is far from the average company to company intellectual property theft. The lawsuit will probably never reach the courtroom at all and will be settled before-hand. However, it's situations like these that make developers turn away from open-source and make it seem not worth the while.
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