May 12, 2006

VIA's open source approach questioned again

Author: Jay Lyman

Motherboard and chipset maker VIA is again taking some heat over its open source efforts that, according to one open source developer, now "instigate" violations of the GNU General Public License (GPL).

The company's record with open source developers is rife with criticism and concern, and has consistently fallen short of expectations and norms for open source developers, who claim VIA is more interested in the marketing buzz of its open source development than providing good code for developers.

This spring, VIA dropped more media chipset source code, but once again the licensing terms regressed from barely open source to far from it, says former Unichrome developer Luc Verhaegen. He says the license changes are reminiscent of past VIA stumbles. As for the licenses in the new code drop, VidStruc.h and Vinline.h, they regress to provide warranty disclaimers only for VIA and graphics company S3, but not open source developers working with the code, Verhaegen says. Additionally, in VIA's video out code, viampg.h, MIT licensing terms were replaced with a proprietary disclaimer that again covers only the corporate side of development.

"This is most certainly not open source software," Verhaegen writes. "This is proprietary nonsense." Verhaegen has a history of conflict with the Taiwan-based company.

In an email response to NewsForge, Verhaegen claimed that VIA actually "actively instigates GPL violation," explaining that a previous license and disclaimer attempt to control code in violation of the Free Software Foundation license.

A copy of the addendum obtained by NewsForge stipulates under the heading "Source Code Information (GPL-based source files)" that developers who sign "may release VIA Confidential source code, in whole or in part and in its original or modified form, if and only if Developer has obtained prior written consent from VIA that VIA has already released the VIA Confidential Information source code to the public domain."

"This only regulates the spread of the source code, not any resulting binaries," Verhaegen says. "So, when you sign their document, VIA will tell you when to comply to the GPL, and when to outright breach it."

Phil Albert, an partner with Townsend and Townsend and Crew and a software legal expert, says it could be a GPL violation if VIA put extra restraints on software that might not belong to the company. "It would be a problem if things they apply their additional restraints to are things they don't own entirely and things they've distributed under the GPL." However, after reviewing the addendum, Albert was uncertain whether VIA's actions amounted to or encouraged violation of the GPL. "It is not clear that there is any violation since the license is very liberal in what can be done with VIA's information."

Some open source developers disagree with Verhaegen about VIA's behavior. Ivor Hewitt, another former Unichrome developer who is now working on a different open driver project called openChrome, says that the hardware company has improved its open source approach.

"As far as VIA and their attitude is concerned, I've had a few chats with them, and [despite] its early days, they seemed keen on trying to engage with us and have asked what they can do to help," Hewitt says. "Perhaps they're just saying what they think we want to hear, who knows, but whenever I've had contact with them, they've always seemed pretty open and honest."

Verhaegen calls on VIA to stick to open source development pillars, such as free documentation and direct involvement rather than private involvement. "VIA should properly commit to open source if it wants the marketing advantage that comes with it," he says. "They should realize that if you produce more marketing, you get more onlookers, and it becomes harder to get away with frivolous statements. Maintaining credibility is what it is all about.

"There still is no real open source support. VIA Arena is users helping users. VIA does just enough to sell chipsets to the embedded market, where free software is all the buzz right now." Verhaegen says that the source code for the K8M890 Northbridge's integrated graphics, for example, is not being opened. "Not because of conceivable IP issues, but simply because it doesn't gain VIA anything with respect to their marketing strategy."

In response, VIA Arena Editor Fiona Gatt says VIA does support and cooperate with several individual open source developers, but currently has no plans to release information relating to proprietary IP. Gatt also defends VIA's open source moves, indicating the company never promised more than it delivered, and is basically dealing with open source the same way that other graphics and chipset companies do.

"We feel the statement that we use open source for marketing purposes is unjustified," Gatt says. "We announced over a year ago last April the release of the kernel source code for the Unichrome display drivers, and did precisely that; there was no mention in that announcement of the release of video acceleration drivers source or other VIA IP."

"Regarding keeping our drivers closed, it should be noted that most companies do likewise, so VIA is not in a unique position."


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