Software Freedom Conservancy announced today it has filed a lawsuit against Vizio Inc. for what it calls repeated failures to fulfill even the basic requirements of the General Public License (GPL).
The lawsuit alleges that Vizio’s TV products, built on its SmartCast system, contain software that Vizio unfairly appropriated from a community of developers who intended consumers to have very specific rights to modify, improve, share, and reinstall modified versions of the software.
The GPL is a copyleft license that ensures end users the freedom to run, study, share, and modify the software. Copyleft is a kind of software licensing that leverages the restrictions of copyright, but with the intent to promote sharing (using copyright licensing to freely use and repair software).
Software Freedom Conservancy, a nonprofit organization focused on ethical technology, is filing the lawsuit as the purchaser of a product which has copylefted code. This approach makes it the first legal case that focuses on the rights of individual consumers as third-party beneficiaries of the GPL.
“That’s what makes this litigation unique and historic in terms of defending consumer rights,” says Karen M. Sandler, the organization’s executive director.
According to the lawsuit, a consumer of a product such as this has the right to access the source code so that it can be modified, studied, and redistributed (under the appropriate license conditions).
“We are asking the court to require Vizio to make good on its obligations under copyleft compliance requirements,” says Sandler. She explains that in past litigation, the plaintiffs have always been copyright holders of the specific GPL code. In this case, Software Freedom Conservancy hopes to demonstrate that it’s not just the copyright holders, but also the receivers of the licensed code who are entitled to rights.
The lawsuit suit seeks no monetary damages, but instead seeks access to the technical information that the copyleft licenses require Vizio to provide to all customers who purchase its TVs (specifically, the plaintiff is asking for the technical information via “specific performance” rather than “damages”).
“Software Freedom Conservancy is standing up for customers who are alienated and exploited by the technology on which they increasingly rely,” says Sandler, adding that the lawsuit also aims to help educate consumers about their right to repair their devices as well as show policy makers that there are mechanisms for corporate accountability already in place that can be leveraged through purchasing power and collective action.
Copyleft licensing was designed as an ideological alternative to the classic corporate software model because it: allows people who receive the software to fix their devices, improve them and control them; entitles people to curtail surveillance and ads; and helps people continue to use their devices for a much longer time (instead of being forced to purchase new ones).
“The global supply chain shortages that have affected everything from cars to consumer electronics underscore one of the reasons why it is important to be able to repair products we already own,” says Sandler. “Even without supply chain challenges, the forced obsolescence of devices like TVs isn’t in the best interest of the consumer or even the planet. This is another aspect of what we mean by ‘ethical technology.’ Throwing away a TV because its software is no longer supported by its manufacturer is not only wasteful, it has dire environmental consequences. Consumers should have more control over this, and they would if companies like Vizio played by the rules.“
According to Sandler, the organization first raised the issue of non-compliance with the GPL with Vizio in August 2018. After a year of diplomatic attempts to work with the company, it was not only still refusing to comply, but stopped responding to inquiries altogether as of January 2020.