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Allwinner GPL violations (groups.google.com)
118 points by iwwr on Feb 26, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

Seems like pretty blatant and long-lived violations. Anybody know why somebody doesn't take them to court and try to get an import ban, monetary damages, or both?

If the punishment for blatantly violating the GPL or LGPL for years at a time while raking in millions of dollars in profits is getting bitched at on the internet, it seems likely to me that a lot of companies will do the cost-benefit analysis and decide that GPL compliance isn't really worth the hassle.

I can't speak to this particular incident, but I have helped with the technical aspects of GPL copyright enforcement, almost exclusively on embedded devices (routers, TVs, blu-ray players, etc). The copyright holders didn't always want money (I'd guess more than 50% did, though) and they all, always, wanted compliance with the license.

It was definitely made clear to the offenders that they would be taken to court, and at that point most of them opted to settle. For those that didn't, the court stuff was mostly uneventful. The judge would tell them they had to comply with the license, they would either stonewall or give us a (usually non-working) dump of their code & build system, ad infinitum, until we told them we were going to ask the judge for an injunction. That was usually sufficient motivation.

The reason there are no court cases is because we had them dead to rights and their lawyers knew it. Their lawyers told them there was no point in fighting, and to just give us what we wanted.

Where did the GPL-enforcing lawyer come from? How did the lawyer get paid? For the people who wanted monetary damages, did they ever actually get significant monetary damages, or were the money claims dropped in exchange for compliance in the settlement process?

Sometimes the Software Freedom Law Center, sometimes the Software Freedom Conservancy. The Conservancy does license enforcement for its member projects upon request.

The lawyers are on staff at those organizations, but I'm not familiar with the details of how their funding works. They are both non-profits, though, so if you're curious you can pull their Form 990s.

I don't know what the monetary damages were. I was never purview to those conversations (as I said, I was only handling the technical side of things). I heard through the grape vine that some of them requested damages as well as compliance, but I don't know for sure.

The simple answer is "because money". It costs quite a bit to be able to do any of that. And that's not something most open source projects or developers can come anywhere close to affording.

Source: I run PortableApps.com and have had my GPL software used illegally by competing projects in other countries as well as at least one Fortune 500 here in the states.

You made PortableApps ? I used it like seven years ago, and it was great - it helped me and a few others to learn programming on our school computers which, as you might guess, didn't have a lot of tools dedicated to that purpose.

Glad you liked it. We're still going strong. A larger percentage of our users these days now use it either locally or on a synced cloud folder. Our platform installer even detects and offers to install to Dropbox, Box, One Drive and Google Drive.

That's awesome, I've got a few things in my dropbox like that... makes it a lot easier even for those bits that I add to my windows path.

For Linux and OSX, it would be cool to see similar things.. though I've seen some interesting things using Dropbox that may yeild a portable *nix app solution one day.

You can run them on Linux via Wine and on OS X via Crossover, Wineskin, etc. We check for running via Wine in our tools and work around a few bugs where we can.

Same here, love portable apps. Used it for the same reason at my old job. Was able to teach myself enough to get a system admin gig.

Glad it helped you out. I'm still amazed at the number of folks the apps and utilities helped over the years. And a number of our devs use the experience they gain towards getting a spot at university or a job as well.

Copyright violation carries heavy penalties these days, particularly in the US. If you can prove it, get a lawyer to work on contingency. IANAL but this seems easy.

It carries heavy penalties for large players with on-staff or retained legal firms. For the rest of us, you can forget about it (source: multiple lawyers, none of whom would work on contingency for a case like this). I can absolutely prove it, but it doesn't matter. At least I got them to stop but not before they'd passed off my software as someone else's to millions.

That's a shame. I've used portableApps and it is a nice piece of software.

If there is any LGPL code in that library, then it can be separated into a secondary library. And the licensing issue could get resolved (in new versions).

It would be great if the code of that library (hardware acceleration for audio/video decoding/encoding) was released with an open license. I hope it happens.

What is sad, is that the OP in the Google Group thread is using the "bitch about it hard and loud" strategy. Trying to be negative and so on. It's not a constructive attitude.

While I agree that it would be ideal if being nice and diplomatic will fix things, I'm personally a bit of a pessimist, and am with Luc on this.

Working with companies like this is often like working with young children. Usually, calmly saying "please don't do that" doesn't work (and, indeed, doesn't appear to be working with Allwinner after 4 years of pointing out GPL violations); you have to make it plain and clear that what the child / company is doing is bad behavior, and that it's making you or someone else upset.

I'd be more inclined to take your side on this and criticize Luc if Allwinner actually had a good track record of responding immediately and adequately to such (L)GPL violations. From what I can tell, however, neither have been the case, and I therefore completely understand (and even agree with) Luc's visible hostility.

To have standing in most places, the "somebody" would need to be an author of one of the works they have infringed on. That limits the pool substantially to begin with. Then that somebody would need to be willing to take the risk and cost of a lawsuit that could drag out for ages, with an uncertain outcome.

That's why we see as few lawsuits as we do.

>> Then that somebody would need to be willing to take the risk and cost of a lawsuit that could drag out for ages, with an uncertain outcome.

I think an author with a proper lawyer would be able to use the DMCA to shut them down rather quickly - meaning it won't drag out for ages.

DCMA would get their repositories shut down and code taken off the internet - but it would not get the code off the devices etc. You'd need a lawsuit against a company based elsewhere - that's a pretty bad timesink potentially.

I thought DMCA was not kosher (https://www.eff.org/issues/dmca). Also, not in the US.

That guy who started the thread on Google Groups (Luc), is prone to polarizing the discussion. I suppose that Allwinner can fix the issue and still keep their library closed. That would be bad for everyone.

It doesn't make it right but it seems like a big part of it is ffmpeg which is one of the most common GPL violations out there. Specifically since Zeranoe's builds are GPL3 the vast majority of windows products that bundles ffmpeg (e.g. games from Funcom and EA among other) are violating the GPL.

Because it's lots of work and you get nothing really in return.

What you want is code that you can commit back into your reposority but what you get is some code that is quickly hacked together and you don't even want to look at.

Allwinner is the rare, if not the only SOC ARM chip vendor, from China that sort of embraced Linux/GPL/LGPL in a public way to some extent. The rest of those similar companies does pretty much nothing meaningful at all, they use Linux too, just no public release whatsoever. In that sense, it's the least evil as far as GPL violation goes.

I'll have to disagree there.

Freescale does an excellent job of putting all of their stuff up on Github. The iMX6 family is a joy to work with thanks to their efforts.


They also go above and beyond with documentation. No NDA/MDA needed. Tens of thousands of pages of freely available technical reference including the entire TRMs for the SoCs:


Freescale isn't Chinese.

True. Sorry to misread the parent post.

I have to disagree here a bit as well. Allwinner has really helped open up RockChip code as well.

For instance, the vpu kernel driver (GPL license) is now open: https://github.com/omegamoon/rockchip-rk30xx-mk808/blob/mast...

And the libstagefright (includes libvpu) as Apache license: https://github.com/HermanChen/Rockchip_4.2_release_libstagef...

The Mali GPU driver is still stuck in proprietary limbo though, AFAIK. Rockchip can't release the code without ARM's permission, and ARM has only released partial support as of now. They claim that it's working, though I am still trying to get a complete X11/Wayland driver running myself (mostly due to all the android dependencies which I don't need under pure Linux)

http://community.arm.com/message/21331 http://malideveloper.arm.com/develop-for-mali/drivers/open-s...

So things are getting better, though there is still some wide gaping holes in development.

> The rest of those similar companies does pretty much nothing meaningful at all, they use Linux too, just no public release whatsoever.

That depends on the end manufacturer. There are lots of Mediatek source code dumps on Github, for example. The problem is that the chipset manufacturers don't actively tell their customers what they are obliged to do under the license - and so they assume that the chipset vendor has given the code and docs under "gongkai" terms.

AMLogic seems to be decent, though I haven't had to delve into it personally so I can't say for sure how complete their source releases are. See here, for instance: http://openlinux.amlogic.com:8000/download/ARM/

Not for naught, AMLogic is an American company founded and HQ'd in Santa Clara CA - though that shouldn't detract from their source releases.

I have full documentation and a working kernel source for rockchip rk3x88 chips.

What recourse does one have against a Chinese company? Has anyone ever shown the GPL to have weight in China?

They sell worldwide. Allwinner are the leading supplier of SoCs for tablets, and are especially popular in "second tier" tablets and phones. All those tablets you see for sale in shops that aren't iPads, but have strange unknown names and sell for $150 - they will have AllWinner-designed chips* and AllWinner-compiled kernels/userspace full of binary blobs. So you can go after that.

It's a real shame because their SoCs are cheap, powerful and very popular amongst Linux/ARM hobbyists - see http://linux-sunxi.org/Category:Devices

* Well, AllWinner cut and paste ARM cores together. I wonder if ARM have this much trouble with licensing too?

> I wonder if ARM have this much trouble with licensing too?

As far as I know, no. To actually produce chips Allwinner and others have to go through one of a small number of fabs. TSMC, Globalfoundries, UMC and Samsung will not make chips with pirated blocks.

IANAL, but I'd say the best bet would be to sue them in the US/Europe and try to get an injunction banning their products, much like the movie industry got DVDFab's domains and funds seized.

Allwinner's SOCs are popular as Raspberry Pi-ish single-board computers for hobbyist Linux users who want a dirt-cheap home server.

What are some alternatives that have better track records with the GPL?

As far as I understand, until recently Allwinner has been doing kernel development with sole focus to get Android shipped as fast as possible. It is a fact that they did not work to get mainline Linux support for their SoCs.

Developing for mainline might be slower but in the long-run it's better and even cheaper. I think that they are seeing this now.

You can check the slides at https://fosdem.org/2015/schedule/event/allwinner_upstream/ for the current level of support. This is about the community work for mainline support.

> It is a fact that they did not work to get mainline Linux support for their SoCs.

Though it is possible. I got mainline Linux running on an A10.

Yeah, because the sunxi community formed and did all the work.

Yeah, I didn't mean that as an endorsement of Allwinner. Just a potentially useful piece of information.

Allwinner boards are quite nice if you want to run mainline Linux on ARM. I've got an A20 based board for that myself.

I'd suggest looking at the ODROID boards from Hardkernel (http://www.hardkernel.com/).

Rather not: http://forum.odroid.com/viewtopic.php?f=111&t=9639 I bought one assuming the openness status was better, but https://www.olimex.com/Products/OLinuXino/ looks better, sadly.

Raspberry Pi.

Nothing will come of this. Who will bother to sue?

Busybox have filed multiple lawsuits over GPL violations, and won: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BusyBox#GPL_lawsuits

http://gpl-violations.org/ when it was still around (seems defunct since November 2014?).

Always interesting to see people's reactions to copyright for GPL Code vs Music/Movies/Games.

They are totally different. The way Music/Movies work usually it's "don't f-ing share this, you need permission".

The GPL is "we require that you share and provide freedoms to others"

In other words, copyright is usually used to block people from being good sharing neighbors. GPL requires sharing. Not sharing is wrong. So, copyright for music is against the natural tendency to be a good neighbor and people rightly blame the copyright restrictions for being awful. GPL violations means you are both infringing copyright and being a bad citizen, bad neighbor.

Not everyone shares your particular idea of what a bad and good citizen is.

I'm pretty sure a significant majority would agree that generosity is an important trait for a good citizen, however. An unwillingness to share makes someone look more like an asshole.

A programmer deciding not to share the fruits of their own labor does NOT make them an asshole. The thread is about Copyright and GPL code, not everything-in-the-entire-world-that-can-be-shared.

Pretty much sure that violating a contractual agreement that you have voluntarily entered does, in fact, make you an arsehole. (Why do I have a British spell checker?)

And? I don't know what you're point is in bring up something I already agree on.


I said "look like", not "be". I'm sure there are plenty of closed-source programmers who really are nice people who rescue puppies from trees and bake cupcakes for school fundraisers, but that doesn't change the fact that answering the question of "Hey, would you be interested in opening up the source code of your program to the public so that people can help you write it and have some way of knowing that your program doesn't have code that sets my hard drive on fire after selling all my personal information to Latvian potato farmers?" with an unwavering "No fscking way", it's pretty understandable that the people who would instead answer "Of course!" would have an impression of that programmer being selfish or perhaps even outright malicious.

What is interesting about comparing reactions to GPL copyright against music copyright? Without saying that either of the two copyright cases is right/wrong, there are major differences. In GPL copyright violation, the violation hinders sharing. In music copyright violation, the violation usually helps sharing. So the comparison is a bit meaningless.

How does it 'hurt sharing?' Maybe in the most trivial sense. The original code is still out there.

How does not paying for works not hurt sharing? If return on investment on works is being hurt then that's a demotivator for future works. Monument Valley had something like a 95% pirating rate on Android. That affects the expectations of indie devs and investors. Brushing this under the carpet doesn't change the facts.

If pirating was more under control, we'd see more innovation and top notch applications in the Android market. Instead, we see all the top notch applications go to iOS either exclusively or only to Android after they've made money on iOS and then publishers decide to push out a port because its just going to get pirated anyway. The difference between these two ecosystems is proof enough that pirating games hurts innovation, companies, and customers.

The usual argument for how nonGPL hurts sharing is that people write improvements to the open work that the original release cannot replicate, thus outperforming it. This causes people to use different (closed-source) works on different platforms, fragmenting the community and hurting sharing.

The original piece of code is left unchanged. The author can share it as much as they want.

You certainly can ask people if they want to share their own work. You can't take it for granted that people have a moral obligation to share the products of their labor. People might say if you don't agree with the license "then stop using GPL code", similar to how someone might say "then stop using copyrighted music/movies/games". It seems to me, that these statements are equivalent, but the attitudes of people are not the same.

But the people who modified the author's code didn't comply with the terms of use for that code... they took something and didn't "pay" for it... the price in terms of GPL and licensing code isn't money, but it is still payment. If a company doesn't want to pay for code that they take, they should write it all themselves or take code that doesn't require payment... GPL requires payment of including modified sources with redistribution.

You may have missed my first post. I understand all that. My point was the that people show differing attitudes to violating copyright when it comes to the GPL vs. Movies/Music/etc.

I detect a note of condescension in your comment, but I actually agree unironically: It is interesting to see people's reactions to copyright with different approaches and different situations. I think copyright is a useful tool, but I'm unhappy with the current infrastructure we have around it, so unusual cases like this help offer some perspective.

You're wrong. It's more a sense of amusement than anything else. I don't have a dog in this fight. I'm neither a GPL fan, nor a supporter of Copyright law as-is.

My apologies, then. I read it as the common Internet usage of "always interesting" where it means "I think this is completely stupid."

Well its certainly not stupid, I just thought that people have their own biases towards copyright law when it comes to GPL violations vs pirating Music/Movies/etc.

About as interesting as peoples reactions to free speech for terrorists vs civil right advocates. If we want to live in a bubble deprived from context, enforcing a share-and-share-alike principle for mega companies is the exact same thing as suing a 8 year old girl for international piracy.

I personally choose to not live in such bubbles.

You are varying two things there. Apples to apples would be comparing GPL software to proprietary software, or proprietary music/movies/games to CC-BY-SA music/movies/games.

Merely a minor LGPL violation.

This makes me think of Bunnie's "From Gongkai to Open Source":


And the general lack of compatibility between western and eastern models of imaginary property.

In this example allwinner is applying the eastern "share, modify, pass around" model, which isn't compatible with the western model of strict license adherence.

In Bunnie's case they're trying to adapt hardware/software developed with no apparent western-style license to a functional project.

> In this example allwinner is applying the eastern "share, modify, pass around" model, which isn't compatible with the western model of strict license adherence.

I don't think your comment matches reality. Eastern "share, modify, pass around"? How does that even remotely match what is discussed in the google group thread? What All Winner did was to take free and open source GPL code paid for by the community (including competitors), modify said code, make binaries, ship defective non-compliant hardware and software BSP to customers and expect everyone to be silent about it. Nope. That's not an "Eastern model" at all. No need to hide their behavior behind shadowy cultural claims. AllWinner knows what they're doing is illegal.

(a) They are not sharing the source at all. (b) Don't apologise for a huge company operating worldwide and breaking the law.

I don't think he was apologising for anything, he was merely drawing a parallel.

As for not sharing the source at all, I agree, this is why I think the analogy doesn't hold, but just for reference, the Chinese companies in Bunnie's case don't officially share share anything either, and yet in practice everything is shared. It's piracy, but no one minds because they all benefit from it.

They appear to be doing "take, modify, distribute as a compiled binary blob that no one else can modify and pass around". It's hard to reconcile that with the word "share".

"Share" does not implies they are sharing freely with everyone.

It does mean that if you crack open any product built around Allwinner (or other similar SOC's), you'll find PCB's that are all close variations of each other, and if you look at the code accompanying it, you'll find plenty of "sharing" going on even if they're not sharing the source with us.

> In this example allwinner is applying the eastern "share, modify, pass around" model

How is that different than the gist of the license. And isn't the whole problem here that they didn't share?

They only people who may complain about those violations are the copyrightholders of the code that has been violated. Everyone else who is chiming in here and bashing the offender is IMHO suffering from some kind of torches and pitchforks mob mentality.

GPL violations as far as I understand it are always a matter to be settled between the original authors and the offenders. I am not aware that the GPL gives bystanders and angry fanboys'n girls the right to sue anyone.

We don't have the right to sue, but we have the right to help the original author(s) sue by providing funds for a legal challenge.

I don't know of the legal status, but I believe the GPL originated when Stallman and others wanted access to the source code for the drivers of a printer. Anyone who uses the software, which is anyone who uses the hardware, should have standing to demand the code.

The history is correct. However the enforcement comes between the author of the code and the distributor.

The author(A) allows the distributor(D) to distribute their(A) code so long as they(D) provide the source plus any modifications to the recipient.

The recipient has no right to demand the code due to there being no agreement to provide it between the distributor and the recipient.

So the author, on behalf of the recipient, must be the one to enforce the conditions of the agreement they made with the distributor.

In cases involving projects like Linux or BusyBox this can be anyone who has committed code, as these projects do not require copyright assignment.

In cases involving projects like GNU and Ubuntu all committed code is owned by the parent organization, the FSF and Canonical respectively. So they are the only ones who can enforce the GPL.

That said, the end user can report violations to groups like The Software Freedom Law Center and GPL-Violations.org. These groups have contacts to various copyright holders and will assist with enforcing them on a pro bono basis.

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