August 8, 2001

Lineo GPL toolset: Clearing up license issues, or protecting intellectual property?

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

Developers of embedded applications based on Linux will soon have a new tool that helps them negotiate through all the software license issues they might bump into. You might think of the soon-to-be-released Lineo Embedix SDK GPL Compliance Toolset as a intellectual property lawyer on a CD, but critics of intellectual property protections might not be fans of Lineo's new product.

The GPL Compliance Toolset is actually designed to alert embedded developers of not just the GNU General Public License, but also 41 other licenses, that they might run into while developing embedded applications. Licenses covered include the LGPL, BSD, and Lineo's own license. Announced this week in a letter from Lineo v.p. Tim Bird, the toolset is billed as part of an "anti-FUD" campaign Lineo is launching to ease embedded developers' concerns about creating programs based on GPL or Open Source licenses. Recently, Microsoft has falsely accused the GPL as being "viral," as forcing developers to open up the source code to anything based on GPLed software.

In his letter, Bird says the toolset will help developers get beyond that Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt spread by Microsoft. "Many embedded developers assume that including Open Source as a component of an overall solution forces them to publish the
combined solution to the Open Source community," he writes. "This assumption is not correct."

What the toolset does is scan your applications in development, lists all the licenses used and how they're being used, and in some cases, allows the developer to automatically update the application to be in compliance with those licenses. The toolset's Code Review Wizard can also evaluate developer coding habits and areas of exposure.

While the toolset is optimized to use with Lineo's embedded Linux OS, other developers could use the toolset to check their applications in development, as well, says Dan Montierth, general manager for the Lineo tools division. Developers should make sure they're using standard license tags on an application they work with, beyond the embedded OS applications.

Lineo created some controversy this week by paying to license FSM Labs' patented RTLinux technology as another way to help embedded developers avoid confusion, and the toolset might prompt some critics. Just as some developers will use the toolset to comply with licenses, others might use it to protect more intellectual property than they may have previously. Instead of Open-Sourcing any applications where there's doubt, they now won't have doubt, a critic might argue, and the result is fewer applications released as Open Source.

But Montierth says the toolset will encourage more developers to work with embedded Linux, and that's a good thing. "We had several customers who, quite frankly, liked us, and they really wanted to work with us, but they were so afraid of GPL contamination issues," he says. "You have two camps -- you have the camp that's spreading all this fear, saying, 'If you use Linux, you'd better run, because you're going to get contaminated,' and then you have other camp that says, 'It's not a problem, we don't have issues.'

"The truth is, it depends," he adds. "Do you have intellectual property you worry about protecting? Is that IP tied close to the kernel? If it is, you have to follow these steps."

Montierth says Lineo isn't trying to make those Open-Sourcing decisions for developers or company, just give them knowledge to make their own decisions. "Knowledge is power, and at least they know what they're doing," he says. "Before, you had engineers who'd be submitting stuff, and thinking either they were protected, or they didn't know or care.

"What were doing for people is giving them the knowledge to make the decision," he adds. "It's up to them to make a business case. What we're going to tell them is, 'Here is where you're crossing the line as far according to the license. If you want to [release] the program, great, it's up to you."

The Lineo Embedix SDK GPL Compliance Toolset will be on display at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo later this month. Lineo expects to release the product, now in beta, in early September.


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