Is Google Android in Copyright Trouble?

Copyright law is complicated. Open Source copyright law is, ironically enough, even more complicated. So, its not necessarily the first thing most people really want to read about, even if the consequences of those copyright laws are more important to the world we live in today than at any time in the past.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a general format to news articles which makes understanding issues like this more complex. Journalists generally tend to start at the end of the story for the benefit of the high-tech audience – tell people who already follow the story exactly what new thing has prompted the article – then follow that up with a history lesson and end with alternate viewpoints that argue against the primary view of the article. That makes something like the current story on Google very hard to read, even for those like myself who consider themselves familiar with copyright law (though not a lawyer):

Google’s ‘clean’ Linux headers: Are they really that dirty? • The Register.

So, what is the deal? Well, let’s break it down:

Open Source

Linux is Open Source software, which means its not just free to use but also free to distribute entirely new versions of. You can modify the software, repackage and release as your own stuff.

But there’s a catch: in the case of the base of Linux, the software is released under a license which enforces a rule stating that not only is the software free, but any derivative distributions must also be free (copyleft). You can’t make money off the core Linux distribution, nor can you make money off modifying it and repackaging it.

Many versions (distros) of Linux exist that do make money, notably Red Hat. So, what’s the deal? Those software distros use a modified “header,” which is sort of like the beginning of the program. Those headers introduce some basic information about how the system behaves, setup environment variables and generally inform the user how the software is to be interacted with. As you might imagine, this modified version of the header is also free for download.

Google Android

What has Google done to cause the ruckus? Well, Google’s mobile operating system, Android, is based on Linux. And instead of using a prepackaged, licensed version of the headers, they’ve opted to create their own based on the core Linux headers. For the most part, as far as anyone can tell, all they’ve actually done was strip out comment language that said the distro was for free-use only.

And that’s the problem: to some people, this is the equivalent of tearing the “not for resale” sticker off a bottle of perfume at the store and then turning around and selling it. Whether or not this is actually true boils down to the kind of hair-splitting decisions upon which copyright law – and law itself – exists. In the opinion of those who believe Google has done nothing wrong, the headers for Linux only really define and establish a few relatively trivial variables and as such, do not necessarily constitute anything all that original. Therefore, they don’t necessarily constitute something copyrightable.

Why did Google chose to go this route? According to the above-linked article, it was because they wanted to keep the issue of GPL out of the user’s experience. I take that to mean they didn’t want users to have to question whether something was legally downloadable or not, just let one Google-defined license define copyright for all apps. Presumably, the GPL licensing on the profit-ready header distribution would have complicated that, at least in the eyes of Google’s executives.

Either way, Google felt comfortable enough – all things in the world of computers revolve around some level of copyright infringement risk – that they opted to create their own headers. It is upon this decision that Android’s fate rests, if its critics are to be believed. It is worth noting that Richard Stallman one of the leading voices in Free Software – and an openly hostile voice against for-profit software – agrees with Google’s assessment of the situation.

The Consequences

Well, with all that out of the way, what earthshakingly-important consequence will there be for all this? Of course, it all comes down to money.

If the Google Android OS is based on the core Linux distro using the copyleft license, then Google cannot charge for its use or development. That’s not a big deal, since Google isn’t really charging for it anyway: unlike Apple, its entirely free to use the Android API and create your own applications from it.

But what about those apps with the $1.99, $2.99 charges on them? Well, you can’t charge for them because they’re based on copyleft software. Whoops! With a single judge’s ruling, any company looking to make money off Android software is out of luck – and may even be subject to lawsuits themselves.

So, that’s what is at stake. I hope that helps some people understand what’s going on.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.