Android violates Linux license, experts claim

Google's Android mobile operating system's usage of the Linux kernel may violate open source licensing with a misappropriation of Linux code

Google's Android mobile operating system's usage of the Linux kernel may violate open source licensing with a misappropriation of Linux code that could bring about the "collapse of the Android ecosystem," some intellectual property experts are charging.

Google is already under fire from Oracle, which has gone to court claiming that Android violates Java patents and copyrights.

The Linux issue is a separate one and no lawsuits have apparently been filed. But a few intellectual property watchers have written analyses that call into question Android's use of Linux code licensed under GPL version 2.

MORE ISSUES: Cell phones are 'Stalin's dream,' says free software movement founder

Although the Linux kernel is open source and freely available to developers, people who use and distribute it in derivative works must abide by strict licensing requirements. At issue is the concept of "copyleft," in which free software must be redistributed under the same terms stated in the original license. The question centers on "the library that connects Android and its applications with the underlying Linux kernel," writes NoSoftwarePatents campaign founder Florian Mueller.

"Google copied 2.5 megabytes of code from more than 700 Linux kernel header files with a homemade program that drops source code comments and some other elements, and daringly claims (in a notice at the start of each generated file) that the extracted material constitutes 'no copyrightable information,'" Mueller writes.

Mueller notes that while the GPL requires derivative works "to be made available on the same terms," Google instead publishes Android under a series of licenses that includes the GPL but also more permissive open source licenses such as Apache and some closed-source programs. The Apache license has no copyleft requirements.

Mueller's analysis was spurred on by concerns raised by intellectual property attorney Edward Naughton and another analysis by law professor and author Raymond Nimmer.

Naughton explains in a Huffington Post column that "Google built Android around Linux, which is an open source operating system licensed under the GNU General Public License version 2 (GPLv2). The GPLv2 is a 'copyleft' license: It grants everyone the freedom to copy and modify the Linux code, but that freedom carries conditions, including the requirement that any modified software code and any works 'based on' it must be made freely available to all. The very point of the GPLv2 is to make it impossible for anyone to take GPLv2-licensed code and make it private and proprietary."

Inspired by concerns raised by Nimmer, Naughton says he examined Google's use of Linux code in Android and, "What I found really surprised me: Google took a novel and quite aggressive approach to developing a key component of Android -- the Bionic Library. That library, a type of C Library, is used by all application developers who need to access the core functions of the Linux operating system. Google essentially copied hundreds of files of Linux code that were never meant to be used as is by application developers, 'cleaned' those files using a non-standard and questionable technical process, and then declared that the code was no longer subject to the GPLv2, so that developers could use it without becoming subject to copyleft effect that would normally apply to GPLv2-licensed code taken from the Linux kernel."

Naughton goes on to say, "I have serious doubts that Google's approach to the Bionic Library works under U.S. copyright law." But "what is potentially even more interesting is what happens if Google is right. If that is the case, Google has found a way to take Linux away from the open source community and privatize it."

If Google were sued and lost, however, Mueller claims that the development ecosystem built around the hugely popular Android mobile operating system would be at risk.

"If Google is proven wrong, pretty much that entire software stack -- and also many popular third-party closed-source components such as the Angry Birds game and the Adobe Flash Player -- would actually have to be published under the GPL," he writes. "A fully GPL'd Android would completely run counter to Google's Android strategy. Everyone would be free to use, modify and redistribute all of the affected software," and there would be "no more revenue opportunity for the developers of the affected applications, and the makers of Android-based devices would lose their ability to differentiate their products through proprietary add-ons."

Unless Google replaces the misappropriated Linux code with something else, it risks the "collapse of the Android ecosystem," Mueller writes.

Google has not yet responded to a request for comment from Network World. So far, the alleged violations are just opinions -- not lawsuits. But in an e-mail to Network World, Mueller says, "The way I view it is that there are literally thousands of Linux kernel copyright holders. Any one of them could pursue money or glory or be motivated by the defense of the copyleft principle."

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags copyrightopen sourceOracleGoogleLinuxlegaloperating systemssoftwareGoogle Androidintellectual propertynon-Windows

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jon Brodkin

Network World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Bang and Olufsen Beosound Stage - Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

ASUS ROG, ACRONYM partner for Special Edition Zephyrus G14

Learn more >

Nakamichi Delta 100 3-Way Hi Fi Speaker System

Learn more >

Sony WF-1000XM3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for Nintendo Switch

Learn more >

Philips Sonicare Diamond Clean 9000 Toothbrush

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Teac 7 inch Swivel Screen Portable DVD Player

Learn more >

SunnyBunny Snowflakes 20 LED Solar Powered Fairy String

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?