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Android May Have Bigger IP Issues than Java

Google supposedly put Linux code into Android in a legally questionable way that likely infringes the GPL

Another shoe has dropped in Android's apparently still unfolding IP crisis, an issue over and above Oracle's controversial Java patent infringement suit, which is now just one of many.

Google supposedly put Linux code into Android in a legally questionable way that likely infringes the GPL, the license that governs Linux, according to what IP litigator Edward Naughton said on the Huffington Post Wednesday in a story entitled "Google's Android Contains Legal Landmines for Developers and Device Manufacturers" that patent watcher Florian Mueller picked up on.

Naughton - and Professor Ray Nimmer, a copyright expert, before him - raise doubts about Google's treatment of the so-called Bionic library that connects Android and its applications to the underlying Linux kernel.

Mueller figures that, if the allegations prove true, the copyright issue could be bigger than Android's Java problems with Oracle and "would have major technical and economic consequences for the Android ecosystem at large: device makers, application developers, users."

Google, it seems, takes the questionable and convenient position that the 2.5MB of code it copied from more than 700 Linux kernel header files - with a homemade program that drops source code comments and some other elements - isn't protected by copyright - and neither are the APIs - because the copyright parts have somehow been irradiated.

The device lets it get around the GPL's copyleft mandate requiring all derivative work be licensed under the GPL. Android, however, is a mixture of GPL, non-copyleft permissive open source licenses like Apache and BSD/MIT and closed source.

Mueller says that if Google's position is wrong - and he quotes Linus Torvalds' historical position on the issue contradicting Google - the entire software stack - and popular third-party closed source components like the Angry Birds game and the Adobe Flash Player - would have to be licensed under the GPL, which, he says, runs completely counter to Google's Android strategy.

Everybody would be free to use, modify and redistribute all of the affected software; developers would lose their revenue opportunities; and Android device makers would lose the proprietary add-on differentiation.

The only alternative to an Android ecosystem meltdown, Mueller figures, would be for Google to switch to the LGPL-governed glibc (GNU C library), which is used by webOS and MeeGo and wouldn't be easy. Thousands of components would have to be rewritten and there would be backward-compatibility issues.

See http://fosspatents.blogspot.com/2011/03/googles-android-faces-serious-linux.html. Linus' rejection of the idea of using the original Linux kernel headers in programs that aren't licensed under the GPL is at http://lkml.org/lkml/2003/12/5/13. Naughton's piece is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/edward-j-naughton/googles-android-contains-_b_836697.html.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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