AVM Denies GPL Violation Claims

German router maker AVM says GPL campaigners are backing software which would break the Fritz!Box

German router maker AVM has defended itself against claims that it is breaking the terms of the GPL licence on its Fritz!Box broadband routers, but GPL creator Richard Stallman has said the firm is in breach of the licence.

AVM is trying to prevent software firm Cybits from distributing an Internet filtering program which it says interferes with the working of the Fritz!Box, but Cybits says AVM cannot stop a user installing Cybits software, because the firmware on the router includes free software licensed under the GPL (GNU General Public Licence) which enshrines the user’s right to modify software.

Both sides have presented their arguments, and on September 27, the court will either decide, or initiate a new set of proceedings and legal arguments.

Nanny software breaks the router?

The row blew up in 2010, when AVM got a ruling from the Berlin Regional Court and Appellate Court, which blocked Cybits from distributing its Surf Sitter DSL software. Surf Sitter downloads the firmware from the router, modifies it and uploads it, with its own child protection features; but AVM says the program disables functions like VPN and IPTV on the Fritz!Box, as well as resetting Internet connections and disabling AVM’s own child protection software.

The ruling was based on competition law, but looked at features like copyright. Cybits appealed, saying that blocking Cyber Sitter interfered with the user’s rights granted under the GPL, which applies to the Linux kernel on the router, and should allow the user to modify any software based on Linux.

The case had become a copyright issue, and attracted the attention of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) and Harald Welte, a Linux programmer whose GPL-violations.org project attempts to police violations of the GPL, and whose role as a contributor to the Linux kernel enabled him to intervene in the court case.

AVM stands by its version of the rights of the case, saying in a statement, “AVM has long been an active member of the open source community”  – although open source is a philosophically different thing from the “free software” advocated by Welte and FSFE. “It has always been our policy to distinguish clearly between open source and our own independent programming,” AVM has said. “And, of course, we publish our sources as stipulated in the GNU-GPL”.

For AVM this is an issue of supplying and maintaining a working product, and blocking unfair competition from Cybits.  “The allegation of a supposed violation of the GPL is an attempt to prevent AVM from enforcing compliance with competition law, trademark law and copyright law,” the company has said, adding that the court decisions so far “protect users from a program that results in malfunctions”.

AVM argued in court that it abides by the GPL in allowing users to see and modify the firmware – but draws the line at the user installing the modified code. “AVM releases the source code compliant with the GPL,” the company reportedly said in court. “Anyone can download, compile and use it – just not on our hardware”.

Welte dismisses this as “FUD” (fear, uncertainty and doubt). “They see the FritzBox as their hardware,” he said on his blog. “Last time I checked, the unit is not rented by AVM, but is legally sold to the customer. It is his decision to do with it what he wants.”

GPL creator Stallman berates AVM

And he is backed by Richard Stallman, orignal creator of the GPL.  “The purpose of the GNU General Public License (GNU-GPL) is to release a free/libre program such that every version respects the freedom of every user,” said Stallman in an email to eWEEK Europe. “AVM tried to take that freedom away from the users, and it should be stopped.”

Because the Fritz!Box firmware contains Welte’s code,  “the license of Harald’s work (the GNU-GPL) doesn’t allow what AVM is doing with the combination,” said Stallman.

If this is true, then AVM’s arguments will probably move to the warranty – its routers have a five year guarantee. It  may argue that AVM has no obligation to support routers whose firmware has been modified, and that deleterious modifications are harmful to its brand.  “Customers who purchase a FRITZ!Box have a right to expect that they will be able to use a functioning product,” said AVM in an email to eWEEK Europe UK. “We will, of course, keep you posted about any further relevant developments.”