back to article Software Freedom Conservancy sues TV maker Vizio for 'GPL infringement'

The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), a non-profit which supports and defends free software, has taken legal action against Californian TV manufacturer Vizio Inc, claiming "repeated failures to fulfill even the basic requirements of the General Public License (GPL)." Member projects of the SFC include the Debian Copyright …

  1. adam 40 Silver badge

    Signed binaries

    You might find even if you can compile new binaries, you can't run them.

    I have seen companies distributing GPL product where the boot ROM checks the signatures before loading, and if that fails, it won't boot.

    If this is implemented in OTP inside the SoC then there is almost no chance of cracking it from the front door.

    1. thx1111

      Re: Signed binaries

      Google sponsored "Chromebook" products are also of this nature. The boot software will not boot an owner installed OS kernel. The device manufacturer, using the "Chromebook" branding, refuses to provide any kind of software support, other than referring to Google's generic "Chromium" project. And, the Chromium project does not provide any straightforward process for installing an owner provided kernel. Perhaps Vizio is just a "first step" in guaranteeing the right of users to control their own GPL'ed software.

      1. Dazed and Confused

        Re: Signed binaries

        > The boot software will not boot an owner installed OS kernel.

        That's also true with UEFI based systems with secure boot enabled, the firmware will only boot signed software. Of course you can normally get a choice of signed software and you can normally disable secure boot.

        With newer kernels it can even be a problem loading non standard kernel modules, so for example loading ZFS on an RHEL 8 box doesn't work with secure boot enabled.

        [root@m10vm8 ~]# modprobe zfs

        modprobe: ERROR: could not insert 'zfs': Required key not available

        [root@m10vm8 ~]#

        1. sabroni Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: Signed binaries

          Nicely defused, that was looking like it could get awkward!!

          Can't have the plebs questioning the behaviour of our beloved Google....

        2. grizewald

          Re: Signed binaries

          That's easily solved by enrolling a Machine Owner Key and signing the zfs kernel module yourself.

          RedHat have extensive documentation describing exactly how to do this, as do the majority of Linux distributions. I have no problem using secure boot and signing self compiled modules on my Laptop running Debian Bullseye.

    2. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Signed binaries

      If they use something under GPL3, you can request installation information. You probably won't get it, but the license gives you a right to it. That wasn't in the GPL 2, though, so just having the Linux kernel won't give you that. That may be a source of more legal action to come, but a lot of the projects concerned don't use GPL3, so it will be harder.

    3. JimboSmith Silver badge

      Re: Signed binaries

      This would be the same Vizio that the FTC fined for spying on their customers? Why am I not surprised by this new news.

  2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    It's a trap !

    I have zero confidence in any so-called "smart" TV.

    TV makers do not know how to be smart. They have made dumb terminals for the past 100 years. They're not, all of a sudden, going to gain the necessary intelligence to make something that is indeed user-friendly and useful.

    "Smart", for me, means that the object has been saddled with unnecessary restrictions, supervision, phoning home, and a very poorly thought-out UI which will annoy me every time I have to use it to get to the content I want.

    I pray that my current television will hold out for many more years, pushing back the date at which I'm going to have to navigate those treacherous waters.

    1. thx1111

      Re: It's a trap !

      Our "smart TV" does not even have a remote with a numeric keypad! We are now forced to access every single channel *sequentially*! A person might suppose that this "oversight" was not by accident, and that the customer simply misunderstood what was meant by "smart" - "smart for whom?". Is someone making money every time a channel is accessed?

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: It's a trap !

        Bit late, but you might find that while the remote you have been given with the TV is limited in this way, the TV itself still has the capability. In other words, you might have better luck with a programmable remote. For example, my (getting on a bit now) LG TV has no way to change aspect ratio directly on the standard remote - you have to access the "quick menu" then down-arrow a couple of times, then right- or left-arrow to scroll through the options.

        My Logitech multi remote knows the code for "change aspect ratio" and so has a button programmed up to do exactly that. The TV even shows a completely different on screen display while you use this button*.

        I have a lot of Panasonic projectors and professional displays at work. Pretty much any of the remotes will work with any of the units, which is quite useful when you need to set a manual IP address on a device where the remote supplied with it only has digits 1 - 6! Oh, and newer projectors only have a "toggle power" button on the remote, while the older remotes have separate "power on" and "power off". As you can imagine, the latter is *extremely* useful in a room with six Panasonic projectors, where one of them has missed that morning's startup command.


        *yes, we do watch quite a lot of old TV programmes, films and the like which are in 4:3 and if there's one thing which really annoys me, it's a 4:3 image stretched to fill a 16:9 screen

    2. HereIAmJH

      Re: It's a trap !

      I wish they would make more dumb TVs. Just give me something that has 4 HDMI ports and I'll use my 'smart' devices. But they want to sell you a new TV when the 'smart' stuff needs updated, rather than allowing me to plug in a new Roku, etc.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: It's a trap !

        While we're at it, can we have physical power switches back please? I had to remove my Samsung 7000 series from the wall to get to the mains power switch the other day after half the buttons on the remote control failed, as it's the only way to do a full power cycle

        1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

          Re: It's a trap !

          Can't you access the mains plug?

        2. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

          Re: It's a trap !

          I think that safety would demand that you can get to the electric socket and unplug the appliance. Having said that, some of my sockets have a large amount of stuff standing in front of them.

          1. Martin an gof Silver badge

            Re: It's a trap !

            Certainly the regulations recommend it in (for example) kitchens, so that you can remove power from a malfunctioning device without having to move the device first. In the case of a kitchen, the trend is to have an unswitched socket behind the appliance, so there aren't any leads trailing around, and a 20A switch nearby, suitably marked.

            Both Schneider and MK have a range of modular switches, engraved with various appliance names. Sadly, not "TV" as far as I can tell, but I bet there's one out there if you look hard enough.


            1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

              Re: It's a trap !

              I just use paper labels and transparent tape on plugs. It should work on switches too.

              I've never really worked out the light switch upstairs at my sister's. One switch is hall light, one is bathroom light, one I have no clue, I just randomly switch until I do what I wanted to do. Then I wash my hands. ;-)

              1. Martin an gof Silver badge

                Re: It's a trap !

                I often wonder how the person who bought our last house got on with the bathroom arrangement. It was the time when Halogen downlighters were all the rage, and we had five 50W GZ10 (not GU10!) downlighters in our bathroom as my wife wanted it bright enough to do makeup by and was fed up with the usual arrangement of a 60W bulb in a closed fitting in the middle of the ceiling.

                I didn't like the idea of 250W of lighting coming on every time you used the bathroom, particularly if you were up in the middle of the night - and didn't want to be blinded, so whereas there was a single pull-cord inside the bathroom, there was a separate switch outside the bathroom in series to the power supply for three of the five lights. If the outside switch was "on", the pull-cord switched all five lights on. If the outside switch was "off", only the light over the loo and the one over the sink would work.

                Perfectly logical to us, but did seem to confuse a few visitors :-)


      2. Kevin Johnston

        Re: It's a trap !

        We just replaced our TV as the previous one had developed a major fault linked to no picture and iffy sound. Repair cost was well over replacement cost so went on the search and found a 1080p Dumb TV which has 3 HDMI, 2 USB, no wi-fi or ethernet and was a brand I had heard of...Blaupunkt

        Purchase made (at around two thirds the price of a similar Smart unit) and all is again harmonious chez moi

        1. Tim99 Silver badge

          Re: It's a trap !

          I'm not buying anymore expensive TVs. Like other posts, I wish that there was a better range of TVs without "smart features". I too had hoped to buy a nice screen without the smart extras. One possibility was a good quality monitor, but they are much more expensive than a similar size TV.

          Eventually we did buy an "up-market" set to put in a small room in our retirement village unit. The set that we chose was a 43" 4K Loewe TV for AU$3000. This turned out to be a massive mistake. The picture quality seemed good - but wasted on us - Even in a small room the viewing distance meant that we could not distinguish between a 4K and 2K signal unless we within a metre of the screen (I suspect even young people couldn't, unless the set was bigger than say 60". The sound quality was dreadful through the built-in sound bar, with a distorted mid-range (particularly on female voice). High frequencies and bass were unpleasant, and could not be adequately adjusted to turn them down. If one of us went to bed the TV's thumping bass set would keep them awake. I measured the frequency response of the set in the room, which backed this up. Putting a decent set of active HiFi speakers on the set showed an even worse response, suggesting that the audio output had been designed to match the built-in inadequate sound bar. (It was the set, not the room - Directly driving the speakers with an iPad Pro gave a pleasant sound with a flat frequency response). The manufacturer's agent and supplier both said that the set was "within specification", and suggested we "bed it in". Three weeks later we got our local Consumer Protection Department involved who said that they thought the set had been "miss-sold" and that we would be a "good test case" on the relationship between an importer's agent and a retailer, and expected that it would be resolved favourably (Only after it had been to court: COVID, maybe a year later?). Even offering a substantial "restocking" fee to return the set was not acceptable to the importer. Fortunately a younger friend came around a liked the sound, as they said it "was like being in the cinema" - They like to watch action movies and play RPGs, We sold it to them at a very substantial discount, and they are happy with it (it saved us having to put it on ebay).

          In the end we finished up with a simple 2K 40" HiSense set at $450 The picture is good and the smart problems were solved by not connecting it to the internet. We have connected an AppleTV, so the rather strange remote is not used. Live TV is with a SiliconDust HDHomRrun 4-aerial TV head which also records through our existing computer (Comskip means we don't see adverts), and the typical small set, poor sound was fixed by purchasing two HomePod minis (OK, sounding like a fanboi here). Total outlay less than $1,000.

          I've noticed that the US market now offers TVs without a live broadcasting TV receiver head, as "young people don't watch TV", so it seems little chance of the revival of the traditional TV...

        2. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

          Re: It's a trap !

          I bought a TV ("Technika") which can record TV onto USB memory. But it only plays back on the TV itself, not on VLC software for instance. Does your TV have those functions? Also I can watch "radio" but cannot record it.

  3. Snake Silver badge

    I smell a fight coming on

    Placing bets that Visio will claim DMCA protections under the guise of defending against competitive theft of IP, a la John Deere, even whilst using GPL'd software.

    Actually, that raises a point about John Deere itself, where their software comes from. Truly proprietary, or Linux-based? And, if Linux-based, their entire stance against right to access their software for right-to-repair completely falls apart.

    1. keith_w Silver badge

      Re: I smell a fight coming on

      I used to work at John Deere (though not FOR John Deere). Their programmers are expressly forbidden from using GPL'd software. They had an annual refresher to remind them of that requirement.

      1. Snake Silver badge

        Re: John Deere

        Well, I'm on the side of the farmers /owners and therefore have no issue with them doing a bit of "hacking" in order to repair goods that they already own.

    2. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: I smell a fight coming on

      "Actually, that raises a point about John Deere itself, where their software comes from. Truly proprietary, or Linux-based? And, if Linux-based, their entire stance against right to access their software for right-to-repair completely falls apart."

      Unfortunately, depending on what software they're talking about, it might not. If the software is only given to the repair people they authorize, then the owner of the equipment doesn't have license rights because they didn't receive copies. The GPL only gives the right to source to those who already have the software, not to those who come into contact with someone who uses it. That allows you to use GPL components if you only use the program internally. For the same reason, they could use a proprietary stack on Linux and similarly avoid having to give up things they don't want to. A copy of the kernel source without the bits that run in userspace won't be as useful.

    3. Jon 37 Silver badge

      Re: I smell a fight coming on

      Legally, that's nonsense. The DMCA is irrelevant here.

      Vizio distributed copyrighted code without a license. That is not allowed, so they have to pay damages for copyright infringement.

      The only defence they might have would be to claim they had a license, the GPL. In which case, they will be asked why they didn't comply with it's terms.

    4. gnasher729 Silver badge

      Re: I smell a fight coming on

      Linux based doesn’t mean open sourced. The OS doesn’t determine what license you need to use.

      1. localzuk

        Re: I smell a fight coming on

        If you distribute Linux, you have a requirement to distribute the OS code as well, or at least make it available.

        However, your own software that runs on top of it? If it isn't using any GPL code itself? Then no, you're right, you wouldn't need to distribute anything.

  4. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Not just Vizio

    UK's TopUpTV pulled the same stunt back in the 2000s and tried some obfuscation stunts on the Ext4fs when called out on it in order to make it less obvsious what they were doing

  5. Fred Goldstein

    Do they know that Vizio touched the kernel, or is it all in userland? I point by analogy to Mikrotik routers. They use RouterOS, Mikrotik's proprietary software. Oh, and it has a Linux kernel, but don't ask for sources... they say they don't do anything that obligates them to publish anything.

    1. Jon 37 Silver badge

      Whether they modified the code or not is irrelevant. If you distribute GPL'd code, you must offer to distribute the corresponding source code.

    2. Marcelo Rodrigues

      Mikrotik DO provide the source - You only have to ask. They charge a handling/media fee - but this is allowed by the GPL.

      No, I never asked them the source - but go read their forum, and You will see people that had.

  6. gnasher729 Silver badge

    I don’t know why nobody mentioned how this “SFC” isn’t actually a copyright holder, so they have no right to sue for anything.

    GPL tells companies “if you want to distribute this software then it would be very wise to distribute the source code as well, otherwise you have no right to distribute and the copyright holder can sue you”. Nobody else can. SFC can complain to copyright holders and ask them a lawsuit, that’s all.

    And the obvious case that you can use GPL licensed software without distributing it, _if you received a different license from the copyright holder, usually for money.

    1. emfiliane

      An agent is allowed to sue on behalf of a client, but I'm sure your internet law degree must have covered that. Your internet law degree might not have covered the fact that most anyone who joins the SFC signs their copyrights over for the duration of the contract, which means they aren't even an agent, they are the copyright holder.

      Boy, do you look silly now, better refresh that internet law course.

      1. sreynolds

        "Your internet law degree might not have covered the fact that most anyone who joins the SFC signs their copyrights over for the duration of the contract, which means they aren't even an agent, they are the copyright holder."

        Did your internet law degree tell teach you, very early on, that "He who asserts must prove". Do you have a copy of the OperWRT license on hand?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        He went to Trump University.

        People please, always deal with Youtube Certified professionals.

    2. nijam Silver badge

      > “SFC” isn’t actually a copyright holder

      The SFC is an agent of (many of) the copyright holders. So of course it has the right to initiate the lawsuit on their behalf.

    3. gnasher729 Silver badge

      SFC explicitely said that they do NOT have any copyrights here, they just are "customers" who think they have rights that they don't have.

      So what I said was based on SFC's words. Everyone can read it. "In the past, the SFC said, "the plaintiffs have always been copyright holders of the specific GPL code." ". That's why I posted. They are not copyright holders. They say they are not copyright holders. What you said, emfiliane, was just made up. Dunning-Kruger at its finest.

      They are also the ones who sued VMWare in Germany in 2015 with the case finally dismissed in 2019.

      1. Tim99 Silver badge

        Maybe misleading? They do say:-

        'Software Freedom Conservancy, a nonprofit organization focused on ethical technology, is filing the lawsuit as the purchaser of a product which has copylefted code. This approach makes it the first legal case that focuses on the rights of individual consumers as third-party beneficiaries of the GPL.

        “That’s what makes this litigation unique and historic in terms of defending consumer rights,” says Karen M. Sandler, the organization’s executive director.

        According to the lawsuit, a consumer of a product such as this has the right to access the source code so that it can be modified, studied, and redistributed (under the appropriate license conditions).

        “We are asking the court to require Vizio to make good on its obligations under copyleft compliance requirements,” says Sandler. She explains that in past litigation, the plaintiffs have always been copyright holders of the specific GPL code. In this case, Software Freedom Conservancy hopes to demonstrate that it's not just the copyright holders, but also the receivers of the licensed code who are entitled to rights.

        The lawsuit suit seeks no monetary damages, but instead seeks access to the technical information that the copyleft licenses require Vizio to provide to all customers who purchase its TVs (specifically, the plaintiff is asking for the technical information via “specific performance” rather than “damages”).'

        It would seem that this is a deliberate act to test this part of the law, as elsewhere on their site is an indication that they could, and do, sue as a copyright holder:-

        'In May 2012, Conservancy launched the GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers, which handles compliance and enforcement activities on behalf of more than a dozen Linux copyright holders.

        The GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers is comprised of copyright holders in the kernel, Linux, who have contributed to Linux under its license, the GPLv2. These copyright holders have formally asked Conservancy to engage in compliance efforts for their copyrights in the Linux kernel. In addition, some developers have directly assigned their copyrights on Linux to Conservancy, so Conservancy also enforces the GPL on Linux via its own copyrights in Linux.'

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        sfconservancy . org / news / 2019 / apr / 02 / vmware-no-appeal /

        > VMware, in their news item about the decision by the Court, announced that they will finally remove vmklinux from vSphere. Both Hellwig and Conservancy had asked VMware to remove the Linux code from VMware's proprietary kernel many times. While the preferred form of GPL compliance is release of the entire work under the terms of the GPL, a common alternative is to merely remove the GPL'd code from the product. VMware chose the latter method to comply.

        > “VMware knew what they were doing was wrong, but continued to generate revenue by infringing copyrights in Linux, while only slowly working toward non-infringement.” explained Karen Sandler, Conservancy's Executive Director. She added: “As we have always said, we simply want companies to follow the rules and do the right thing when they incorporate GPL'd code into their products.” Hellwig added: “When VMware takes this action, they will finally comply with the GPL. Reaching this goal has cost me a lot of time and energy in recent years.”

        While it is true that no damages were awarded, VMware did finally comply with the GPL license. Which was the SFC's original goal.

  7. NZ_M

    Unfortunately pretty common, even with big globals. I tried to find GPL source for Vodafone's GEN2 STB which I understand runs a modified Linux, possibly running VEWD OS, alas couldn't find any source or references to GPL by either company.

    Note that's the NZ Vodafone TV box (hardware NZ-512) which is/was different to the Australian one

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