Open-source enthusiast chides Cisco over iPhone

Even while Cisco Systems is suing Apple for violating its iPhone trademark, an open-source enthusiast is accusing Cisco itself of infringing copyright in the same product.

Cisco has not published the source code for some components of the WIP300 iPhone in accordance with its open-source licensing agreement, said Armijn Hemel, a consultant with Loohuis Consulting and half of the team running the GPL Violations Project, an organization that identifies and publicizes misuse of GPL (GNU General Public License) licenses and takes some violators to court.

The WIP300 iPhone is based on Linux, and Cisco has agreed to comply with the terms of the open-source GPL license in order to use the software. The GPL license requires the company to publish the code that it develops for the phone.

Industry experts say that open-source software users, including companies and individuals, commonly fail to share their developments. Sometimes that’s because they may misunderstand how open-source software works but it may also be because publishing the code can be a cumbersome and expensive process.

Hemel downloaded the firmware for the WIP300 phone and reverse-engineered it, first checking with a lawyer that such a process is legal, he said. He then discovered that Cisco has neglected to share the code for a couple of programs in the phone, including the Memory Technology Device which is used to program the Flash memory, he said.

Hemel also found similar omissions in other Cisco products and contacted the company to arrange a meeting. “I just bombarded the Linksys contact in the Netherlands. I think they got fed up and arranged the call,” he said. Linksys is a unit of Cisco.

The Cisco representatives he finally talked to in a conference call on Oct. 30 were very open to his report, he said. The company subsequently fixed omissions on a few products that Hemel identified, including the EFG250 storage device as well as an Internet camera and router, he said.

But Cisco has yet to publish the relevant code from the WIP300 iPhone, Hemel said. He decided to talk about his findings now because “the timing is just perfect,” he said. “For someone talking about Apple using Cisco’s property, actually they’re infringing on copyright themselves. So it’s just a double standard.”

Last week, Cisco filed a lawsuit charging Apple with trademark infringement since Apple introduced a mobile phone called the iPhone.

Hemel didn’t actually identify for Cisco the specific code that hasn’t been published. “I’m not going to do their work for them,” he said. He suspects that a large company like Cisco might hire various programmers possibly from outsourced companies around the globe in order to create a product like the iPhone. That might make it difficult and potentially expensive for Cisco to properly document and account for all the code in the phone, he said.

Cisco representatives did not immediately reply to phone calls and e-mails made on Wednesday asking for comment.

If Cisco is violating the terms of the GPL license in the iPhone, it certainly isn’t alone. “It occurs more frequently than we’d like to see,” said Shane Coughlan, Freedom Task Force coordinator for the Free Software Foundation Europe. The problem is that many organizations don’t quite fully understand the concept of free software and often don’t have appropriate policies that enable them to comply with their software licensing agreements, he said.

“If you’re used to buying code and used to owning it, it’s difficult to understand having code that is owned by thousands,” he said. “A lot of companies have been good in trying to come into compliance and figure out how sustainable compliance can be introduced in company policy.”

There are repercussions to failing to comply with an open-source license. The GPL Violations Project has successfully enforced 100 violations.

In addition, an individual who contributed to software that someone else fails to properly use under a license can take the licensee to court and look for financial compensation for copyright violations, said Coughlan.

Subscribe to the iOS Tips & Trends Newsletter

Comments