Software Freedom Conservancy files lawsuit against California TV manufacturer Vizio Inc. for GPL violations

Litigation is historic in nature due to its focus on consumer rights, filing as third-party beneficiary


IRVINE, Calif. (Oct. 19, 2021) Software Freedom Conservancy announced today
it has filed a lawsuit against Vizio Inc. for what it calls repeated failures
to fulfill even the basic requirements of the General Public License (GPL).

The lawsuit alleges that Vizio’s TV products, built on its SmartCast system,
contain software that Vizio unfairly appropriated from a community of
developers who intended consumers to have very specific rights to modify,
improve, share, and reinstall modified versions of the software.

The GPL is a copyleft license that ensures end users the freedom to run,
study, share, and modify the software. Copyleft is a kind of software
licensing that leverages the restrictions of copyright, but with the intent
to promote sharing (using copyright licensing to freely use and repair

Software Freedom Conservancy, a nonprofit organization focused on ethical
technology, is filing the lawsuit as the purchaser of a product which has
copylefted code. This approach makes it the first legal case that focuses on
the rights of individual consumers as third-party beneficiaries of the GPL.

“That’s what makes this litigation unique and historic in terms of
defending consumer rights,” says Karen M. Sandler, the organization’s
executive director.

According to the lawsuit, a consumer of a product such as this has the
right to access the source code so that it can be modified, studied, and
redistributed (under the appropriate license conditions).

“We are asking the court to require Vizio to make good on its obligations under copyleft compliance requirements,” says Sandler. She explains that in past litigation, the plaintiffs have always been copyright holders of the specific GPL code. In this case, Software Freedom Conservancy hopes to demonstrate that it’s not just the copyright holders, but also the receivers of the licensed code who are entitled to rights.

The lawsuit suit seeks no monetary damages, but instead seeks access to
the technical information that the copyleft licenses require Vizio to provide
to all customers who purchase its TVs (specifically, the plaintiff is asking
for the technical information via “specific performance” rather
than “damages”).

“Software Freedom Conservancy is standing up for customers who are alienated and exploited by the technology on which they increasingly rely,” says Sandler, adding that the lawsuit also aims to help educate consumers about their right to repair their devices as well as show policy makers that there are mechanisms for corporate accountability already in place that can be leveraged through purchasing power and collective action.

Copyleft licensing was designed as an ideological alternative to the
classic corporate software model because it: allows people who receive the
software to fix their devices, improve them and control them; entitles people
to curtail surveillance and ads; and helps people continue to use their
devices for a much longer time (instead of being forced to purchase new

“The global supply chain shortages that have affected everything
from cars to consumer electronics underscore one of the reasons why it is
important to be able to repair products we already own,” says
Sandler. “Even without supply chain challenges, the forced obsolescence
of devices like TVs isn’t in the best interest of the consumer or even the
planet. This is another aspect of what we mean by ‘ethical
technology.’ Throwing away a TV because its software is no longer
supported by its manufacturer is not only wasteful, it has dire environmental
consequences. Consumers should have more control over this, and they would if
companies like Vizio played by the rules.“

According to Sandler, the organization first raised the issue of
non-compliance with the GPL with Vizio in August 2018. After a year of
diplomatic attempts to work with the company, it was not only still refusing
to comply, but stopped responding to inquiries altogether as of January 2020.

“By July 2021, the TV model that we originally complained was
non-compliant was discontinued,” says Sandler. “When we purchased new models,
we found that despite our efforts they still had no source code included with
the device, nor any offer for source code. People buying these models would
never know that there was anything special about the software in these
devices, or that they had any rights whatsoever connected with the software
on their TVs.”

Software Freedom Conservancy analyzed the TVs and concluded that not only
was Vizio not providing the source code and technical information that
copyleft licenses require, Vizio was not even informing its customers about
copylefted software and the rights it gives them as consumers.


Software Freedom Conservancy is a nonprofit organization centered around
ethical technology. Our mission is to ensure the right to repair, improve,
and reinstall software. We promote and defend these rights through fostering
free and open source software (FOSS) projects, driving initiatives that
actively make technology more inclusive, and advancing policy strategies that
defend FOSS (such as copyleft). The organization is incorporated in New
York. For more information, go


full press kit, with substantial additional information and resources for
journalists covering this story, can be viewed and downloaded here


Hannah Gregory, Media Rep for Good Causes