Applying Open Source Software – Help Reduce Electronic Waste?


The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) has launched a lawsuit in the United States against smart TV maker Vizio for alleged violations of open source software (OSS) licenses. Although this is an American case, it is worth watching as the SFC is taking a new approach to the application of free software which, if successful, could cause companies to re-evaluate their approach based on free software. the risks of free software compliance. It could also be an important part of the “right to repair” movement aimed at reducing electronic waste – a topic of particular relevance in light of the ongoing COP26 summit.


The SFC claims that Vizio smart TVs, like many “smart” devices, use the Linux operating system as the basis of the Vizio “SmartCast” software (i.e. the bit that makes their TVs “smart” ). This includes a number of OSS packages licensed under GPLv2 and LGPLv2.1. Under these license agreements (often referred to as “copyleft” licenses), if the licensee distributes modified versions of the licensed software, it is obligated to provide the source code for such modified software, which Vizio has not done. Vizio initially responded to requests from the SFC to provide the source code for the “SmartCast” software (providing six different versions), but none of these were deemed sufficient by the SFC. Vizio then ceased communications, prompting the SFC to initiate proceedings.

Another type of complaint

Unlike previous enforcement actions taken by organizations like the SFC and the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the SFC has not filed a copyright infringement complaint on behalf of any of the software developers under. GPL license. Instead, the SFC files a claim on its own behalf, as a consumer of Vizio’s products, after purchasing some of Vizio’s smart TVs. The SFC claims that it is therefore a third party beneficiary of the GPL agreements under US law, and that it is therefore able to enforce the conditions that require the publication of the source code. The SFC does not seek damages, but rather the concrete performance of these obligations.

The results

If successful, this approach would allow organizations such as the SFC and FSF to take enforcement action against commercial entities for breaching open source license terms (GPL). As the SFC pointed out in its request, it is the buyers of products such as Vizio smart TVs who have the motive and information to enforce the manufacturer’s source code disclosure obligations – the developers who hold the rights to The author is unlikely to be motivated to continue with this type of action (for various reasons).

The majority of sophisticated electronic devices use some form of the Linux operating system to perform their functions. If successful, this action could therefore increase the OSS license compliance risk profile (especially any obligation to release source code) among manufacturers, who might otherwise face a greater risk of enforcement action by organizations such as the SFC or motivated individual consumers.

Environmental impact

One of the reasons given by the SFC for bringing the case was to support the “right to redress” movement, which has grown around the world. This movement is considered an important part of the net zero crossing. It aims to prevent devices from ending up as electronic waste because they cannot be repaired (for example, if manufacturers do not provide replacement parts or make devices that are essentially impossible to repair).

The UK and the EU recently put in place new rules that require manufacturers to provide spare parts for a limited range of products (such as washing machines and televisions). However, with most modern devices (from cars to televisions), a lack of software support can be just as crippling as an inability to get a replacement part.

The SFC hopes that forcing manufacturers to disclose the source code of firmware on their devices will result in community support for devices that are no longer supported by the manufacturer, thereby reducing the number of otherwise perfectly good devices that are upgraded. simply discarded for lack of software support. . This has proven to be successful in the past – FSF enforcement action against Cisco regarding Linksys routers has led to the development of community “open wrt” software for routers.

Implications for companies

SFC’s case against Vizio is likely to take a long time to resolve, but companies that distribute this type of smart device (TVs, routers, set-top boxes, etc.) should review their own practices and OSS compliance, as well as their supply chain compliance. Information disclosed by SFC showed that part of the initial delay in providing source code by Vizio was due to dependence on a third-party vendor. The reputational impact of enforcement action against a business, coupled with the pressure to increase sustainability, means that in the end, it will be a good decision for businesses.

The EU and UK, as well as the FTC in the US, have made it clear that the “right to redress” is among their priorities. In order to support net zero goals, it is anticipated that manufacturers will need to start designing products that are both easily repairable and durable, and support both hardware and software for a significant period of time.

“Throwing away a television because its software is no longer supported by its manufacturer is not just a waste, it has dire environmental consequences.”

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