Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce BusyBox replacement project fuels animated verbal spat

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BusyBox gained a measure of fame a few years ago when it became the subject of a lawsuit in the US, some say the first case in courts in that country to test the GPL. A number of similar suits followed, the contention always being the same: BusyBox was being used by some company or the other in violation of the terms of its licence, the GPL.


The suits were filed by the Software Freedom Law Centre; more recently, the Software Freedom Conservancy has taken over the role of enforcing the GPL on the program. So far, so good.

One must also mention here, for the uninitiated, that the GPL stipulates that any code added to a project that is already under this licence has to be under that very licence. Hence if I were to contribute some code to a GPL project, it would come under the same licence and be subject to the same terms of distribution as the original project.

Supporters of the GPL argue that this ensures that one man's greed is not allowed to get in the way of the community benefitting. For obvious reasons, companies do not like the GPL. There is a lot of very good code out there which is under this very licence and companies do whatever they can to use it without giving back the entire source.

In his blog post, Garrett made reference to a project recently begun to write a non-GPL replacement for BusyBox.

Garrett accused the person behind the project, an engineer from Sony named Tim Bird, of starting the project in order to enable people to "violate licences with impunity." Code licensed under more permissive licences like the BSD licence can be taken by a third party amd locked away if one is so inclined; companies love code that is issued under this licence.

If companies use BusyBox, then the SFC can go after them in the event that they violate the terms of the GPL. One of the conditions in the GPL is that if someone violates it, then one loses the rights to distribute the program in question for all time unless the copyright holder(s) grants it another licence. The SFC has been granting new licences to violators only on condition that they release the source code to BusyBox which they have used and also the source to all other programs on their device which require source distribution.

If something else were to be used instead of BusyBox, then the SFC would have no lever to ask for source release for any programs on a device. Garrett has thus urged those who have copyright to code in the Linux kernel to let the SFC enforce the GPL on their behalf; then the SFC could lay down the same conditions even if Tinybox were used.

Here is where Garrett has hit a sore spot. Bird has denied that his motivations for rewriting BusyBox had anything to do with enabling anyone to violate licences. The person contracted to the replacement project is Rob Landley who began a project named Toybox in 2006 "to create simple implementations of all the important Linux command line     utilities".

Landley has weighed in with some forceful replies of his own, and Perens, who is another interested party, has joined in with gusto. The comments, animated as they are. make for interesting reading; one lot is here, on Linux Weekly News, and the other is on Garrett's blog. Enjoy.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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