California Court Says Open Source Software Users Could Enforce the License

A decision by the Superior Court in California indicates that those who receive software subject to the GPL open-source license may be able to exercise their rights under the license as third-party beneficiaries of the contract, separately from the rights of the copyright owners. The decision was delivered in a lawsuit filed by the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), a non-profit organization active in enforcing free licenses, against Vizio, a manufacturer of smart television sets.

The SFC filed the lawsuit in October 2021, seeking enforcement of the terms of the GPL, but not monetary damages, based on contract law rather than copyright law. According to the lawsuit, Vizio integrates many open-source software, including the Linux operating system, into its smart TV systems, which are subject to GPL v. 2 and LGPL 2.1. Both licenses require, as a condition for distributing the software, handing over the source code to the recipient, in this case, the buyer of the television. Consequently, enforcing the licenses could potentially compel Vizio to disclose its proprietary code developed and integrated with the free software.

Vizio argued that only copyright owners can enforce the requirement to provide the source code and that the GPL does not grant a right of action to third parties, such as the plaintiff, who do not own the rights to the free software. SFC countered, arguing that the wording of the GPL indicates that recipients of the software subject may enforce their rights according to the license.

The court sided with the plaintiff, stating that allowing third parties like the SFC to enforce their rights to obtain the source code is essential to achieving the goals of the GPL. Without such enforcement rights, the recipients’ right to receive the code would not be guaranteed. The judge found that in many cases, copyright owners lack a financial incentive to enforce this right in the license because they would incur all enforcement costs without any real benefit to themselves.

The lawsuit will now continue to trial, to determine whether SFC is an intended third-party beneficiary under the GPL.

Click here to read Software Freedom Conservancy, Inc. vs. Vizio, Inc.