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GPL Freedom Has Limits - Interview with Netfilter's Harald Welte
Saturday, June 26 2004 @ 05:27 AM EDT has an interview, in German, naturally, with Netfilter developer Harald Welte about the GPL court case in which Netfilter recently won a temporary injunction against Sitecom Germany GmbH, the first court ruling involving the GPL.

The interview brings us up-to-date on what happened and what comes next. Welte speaks to his hope that the case, and others he is involved with, will educate those thinking of violating the GPL that there are penaties for doing so. The freedoms of the GPL come with requirements too, requirements that will be enforced, in court, if necessary.

He comments on the Munich decision to switch to Linux, in the context of price being a factor. He, and you, might find it of interest to know that at the last minute, Microsoft reportedly offered the city of Munich a special deal, whereby it would have cost less to stay with Microsoft than to switch to Linux, some $12 million less, plus millions' worth of other offers and perks, and they turned it down. In an interview with, Wilhelm Hoegner, head of the information and data processing office of the City of Munich, tells why:

"What were the main reasons for the city's decision to change to Linux?

"The key aspect was the ability to control the release policy ourselves; in other words to free ourselves from reliance on the product cycles of a small number of software companies.

"Another important point, of course, was licence costs, and security also plays an important part. We are switching directly from Windows NT to Linux, since NT, which is non-secure, was followed by a number of systems from the same manufacturer, which were also open to attack."

Evidently, price was absolutely not the only factor and not even the most important. Since that is the core of Microsoft's current FUD, I'd say things are looking bleak for them. I therefore agree with Eric Raymond's prediction that we can expect them to react, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them play the patent-threat card any time now, with SCO-like legal meanness possibly to follow. Isn't that what companies on the skids do? Try to monetize their IP when nobody wants their products any more?

I believe they will try the patent stranglehold in the hopes of either parasiting on GNU/Linux systems by trying to get royalties so as to prolong the life of the company, a la SCO, or in the hopes of pricing their competition out of the market, also a la SCO. Guess who pops up then offering Brand X "open source" desktops? Think rising in the east.

Judging from the Munich story, that won't help them either. People will pay more for security and for freedom. And they'll go through nuisance lawsuits too, if they have to. I believe we've seen how endearing the world finds it when you attack Linux, by watching SCO's UNIX business sink with every quarter. If Microsoft imagines they can win customers with tactics like that, they are mistaken. It will only deepen the disgust that is growing against this company not only in the US but worldwide. And folks won't buy from companies they don't like and don't trust. It's that simple. No one likes a bully.

Microsoft imagines this is about money, about total cost of ownership, which is why they think they can prevail by churning out "research" by their paid help and "Get the FUD Facts" road shows. It isn't. It's about disgust with their software and with their business practices. How do you fix that? Not with IP lawsuits, that's for sure. I think it'd take a heart transplant, and throw in a kidney, while you are at it, since I recall a scripture says the kidneys represent your deepest self. Nothing less fundamental and drastic can cure what ails Microsoft. People are fed up. Asking the world to stick with their products now is like a politician asking his ex-wife to vote for him after abusing her for years. It's conceivable, if he convinces her he's totally changed his ways, but otherwise not likely. Maybe not even then. has graciously allowed us to translate the Welte interview in full, and doughtnuts_lover has done so for us, with some editing by me to make it more colloquial. Feel free to do better. is not responsible for any errors we've made. Enjoy.


Interview: The Freedom of the GPL Has Limits Talks with Netfilter Developer Harald Welte

In mid-April 2004, Harald Welte won the world's first legal ruling based on the GPL (General Public License). The developer of the Linux firewall, Netfilter, won a temporary injunction at the district court of Munich against router producer Sitecom. Sitecom uses Linux in its devices but hadn't provided source code as required by the GPL. spoke with Harald Welte about the legal proceedings against Sitecom and about protecting free software. What is the status of the proceedings concerning the GPL violations?

Harald Welte: Well, actually the only GPL suit which so far went to court is the Sitecom case. There was a temporary injunction which we easily won at the Munich district court. Sitecom filed an objection against that temporary injunction. This was at oral proceedings on May 19th, 2004. Sitecom lost its objection. That means that there will be a trial soon?

Welte: Not for sure. At the moment, Sitecom still doesn't know whether they'll appeal that judgment. That will be decided by Sitecom after they have the judgement of the Munich district court in writing. Then it will be decided whether Sitecom will appeal. If at that time Sitecom doesn't want to appeal, we'll require that they provide us in writing a final declaration that they are acknowledging the temporary injunction as a binding decision. If they don't provide us such a declaration, then there will have to be a trial. But this actually would only prolong the matter needlessly. Why Sitecom? Did this company behave particularly uncooperatively at the beginning?

Welte: No, we treat everybody the same. There isn't any preference or discrimination. It's just that from the time you become aware of copyright infringement, you only have 4 weeks to apply for a temporary injunction. And if your opponent isn't willing during those 4 weeks to sign off that they won't and don't use free software contrary to the license terms, then we have a choice, either to let the 4-week time period run out, hoping that later during trial we'll get what we want, or we can apply for a temporary injunction at the last moment in time before the end of the 4 weeks. And with Sitecom it went that way. You mentioned during your speech that some people have criticized the rather low-key proceedings in the Linksys case (Cf. [ed.]) What do you say about that criticism?

Welte: That Linksys case was handled by the FSF, and there was some criticism about the very slow pace before there were any visible results. Though Linksys had released some source code, it wasn't complete. It was only a standard kernel which also wasn't configured -- there were all kinds of parts missing. So it wasn't what the license required, and negotiations were pretty protracted. You mentioned that there is hardly a week where you are not informed about a copyright violation of your software. How much of your working time are you devoting to legal matters to protect free software?

Welte: Unfortunately too much. I'm an engineer and would much prefer programming all day long. During the last few months during which I have been actively involved in this, I'd say that about a quarter of my time was spent on it. We were busy with 16 cases, some still ongoing. Some of them are settled. For example, Fujitsu Siemens, Belkin, Asus were all settled out-of-court. There are still other cases which are currently in negotiations, and it all takes a lot of time.
The idea is to publicly make known some high-profile cases in order to put the opposition, those thinking of violating the GPL, on notice that we are serious and that we mean what we say and will enforce the license in court if you violate its terms. The idea is that then it will prevent having to handle lots of little cases, once the word is out. Do you think that copyright violations are particularly prevalent in your particular area, since components like Netfilter are deployed in so many different devices?

Welte:That's absolutely correct. Netfilter is in widespread use. If you include the whole range of DSL and WLAN routers, access points and VPN devices, there is an incredible bandwidth of network equipment where packet filters are deployed. Therefore Netfilter is affected pretty heavily. Nevertheless I would say that the Linux kernel itself, thus the actual core of the kernel like memory management, is used even far more often. I know many products where I for myself can do nothing because Linux is used but not a packet filter and I'm only the author of the packet filter. But if Linux is deployed in so many other products, why is it only you who is suing? Apparently others don't.

Welte: There is actually another well-known case which many may have heard about. That's the case of Kiss Technology (Cf. [ed.]) which specializes in DVD players and which is now accused at least of using software taken from the MPlayer project. In the end you simply have to recognize that you are taking a chance. In the court of first instance, I'm taking a chance of nearly 10,000 Euro (currently about $12,000 [ed]) if I lose. And there aren't many free software authors willing and in a position to take such a risk. Did options for legal protection as offered for instance by FSF Europe with their Fiduciary Licence Agreement play a role in your considerations when you thought about proceeding against copyright violations against your software?

Welte: That's right. There is the Fiduciary Licence Agreement (Cf. [ed.]) whereby you can provide FSF Europe with some rights. But I don't know of any prior cases. I would be very happy if something develops there. It's a fact that we frequently obtain donations to FSF Europe during extrajudicial negotiations -- even in the 4-digit range -- where we agree with FSF Europe that these monies will be set aside for enforcing the GPL. I personally wouldn't want to use the Fiduciary Licence Agreement now, but I think that for authors who don't plan to deal with enforcing rights, maybe for economic or time reasons, this is certainly an option they could consider. Did you deliberately choose the GPL license rather than a BSD license or a similar license, and if so, why?

Welte: Yes, freedom! It matters to me that software which I have written will be available in source code for users, even if the software is changed. Under a BSD license, someone could build a product on Netfilter and produce and sell it without providing source code. I think especially for security-related software, it's important that source code can be looked at to make sure there aren't any back doors built in. Just a few days ago, there was a Netgear router which had a back door built in. If I have source code, it is much easier for me to recognize whether there is a back door built in or not. And if there would be a back door built in, I can simply take out the back door, recompile and load that image into my device again, which I now can use without the back door. I understand that not every human in this world is a C freak capable of programming a kernel, but at least in theory, all are in a position to do this or to hire someone who will do it for them. In those cases where there were out-of-court settlements, were there real code modifications by manufacturers that in the end flowed back into the Netfilter project?

Welte: Yes, above all there is the US Robotics case where a so-called connection-tracking Helper for DirectX was built into the code. While we didn't integrate this code officially into the project, and that code hasn't become yet part of the kernel, it is sitting in our CVS repository. First, we have to evaluate whether the code meets our quality requirements. but it's vital that these modifications flow back into the project. Do you think that companies which have agreed to out-of-court settlements are now more open regarding the idea of free software? Are they seeing an advantage that code is freely available, apart from cost aspects?

Welte: I think that Linksys is profiting from it quite a lot. I know many people from the free software community who are buying Linksys routers precisely because they are able to modify them. Now I don't just buy a finished product which I plunk down somewhere in a corner, but I buy something which I can modify and explore, where I can delve into protocols and interfaces, and I can work creatively with the technology.

For Linksys - I think it's working out very well -- there are now many community-based projects which offer their own firmware images, also small mini-Linux distributions. A real community developed around their device, and I think that this had a very positive effect for Linksys, looking at it from the marketing angle.

I also believe that, above all, there is now an awareness that it's not about freeware or public domain software but about free software and that the GPL also has terms and obligations. Some have to learn this the hard way. I know of some companies -- I don't want to mention any names now -- where their engineering departments knew that there were GPL license violations and informed their superiors. But it never made it to the appropriate decision-making level or to their legal departments.

There is even a case where we know that the engineering and the legal departments had knowledge but the decision-makers simply turned a blind eye. I think that the only way to prevent such behavior is by means of legal action, so as to create an awareness among executives on the highest level that there are rules you have to abide by. So at the beginning GPL software or free software was seen more just as free-of-charge software?

Welte: Right, typically cost aspects are considered first. Whether that's the way it should be is another question but it just is a very important feature. For example, during the discussions about Munich switching to Linux, that cost angle came up. Sad to say, not all people in this world prize freedom as highly as I wish they would.

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