German ruling against violation of GPL software license

By EDRi · April 21, 2004

A district court in Munich, Germany granted a preliminary injunction against Sitecom Germany GmbH for violating a GNU General Public License (GPL).

Sitecom is offering a wireless access router product based on software developed by the netfilter/iptables project and licensed under GPL. The GPL offers a free license to software, but requires any re-distributor to provide the full source code. The GNU GPL is commonly used for many free software projects, such as the Linux Operating System Kernel.

According to the court, Sitecom did not fulfil the obligations imposed by the GNU General Public License covering the netfilter/iptables software. In particular, Sitecom did not make any source code offering or include the GPL license terms within their products.

Following a warning notice, Sitecom refused to sign a declaration to cease and desist. The netfilter/iptables project asked the court for a preliminary injunction, banning Sitecom from distributing its product, or comply with all obligations imposed by the public license.

In their press release Netfilter cite their representative, Dr. Till Jaeger, partner of the Berlin and Munich based law firm JBB Rechtsanwaelte. “To my knowledge, this is the first case in which a judicial decision has been decreed on the applicability and the validity of the GNU GPL”.

Usually disputes about public licenses are solved behind closed doors. According to Eben Moglen, co-author of the GPL with Richard Stallman, preventing such enforcement costs was one of the leading concepts behind the license.

“I hear quite often that my license has not been tested in court. This puzzles me. It is, because of the structure of my license, the defendant’s obligation affirmatively to plead it, if she wants to. After all, if she is distributing, it is either without license, in which case my license doesn’t get tested – there’s an unlicensed distribution going on and it’s enjoinable – or the license is pled by the other side… how interesting. There, if I may put it to you briefly, is the trick. That’s how it was done. That’s how an enormous commons came into existence throughout the world, not just with zero cost of goods and movement and sales, but with near zero cost of enforcement.”

Netfilter/iptables project

Speech Eben Moglen (29.06.2003)