Software Freedom Conservancy right-to-repair lawsuit against California TV manufacturer Vizio, Inc. remanded to California State Court

Court Ruling shows that the GPL agreements function both as copyright licenses and as contractual agreements, says nonprofit organization

May 16, 2022

For Immediate Release — IRVINE, CA, USA —
Software Freedom Conservancy announces it has succeeded in federal court with
its motion to have its lawsuit against Vizio, Inc. remanded back to Superior
Court in Orange County, California. Vizio, Inc. previously filed a request to
“remove” the case from California State Court into U.S. Federal

The May 13 ruling by the Honorable Josephine L. Staton stated that the
claim from Software Freedom Conservancy succeeded in the “extra element
test” and was not preempted by copyright claims, and the court finds
the enforcement of
‘an additional contractual promise separate and distinct from any
rights provided by the copyright laws’ amounts to an ‘extra
element,’ and therefore, SFC‘s claims are not preempted.“

“The ruling is a watershed moment in the history of copyleft licensing. This ruling shows that the GPL agreements function
both as copyright licenses and as contractual agreements,” says Karen
M. Sandler, executive director of Software Freedom Conservancy. Sandler noted
that many in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) legal community argue
incorrectly that the GPL and other copyleft licenses only function as
copyright licenses.

The lawsuit by Software Freedom Conservancy, a nonprofit organization
focused on ethical technology, was filed Oct. 19, 2021, against the TV maker
Vizio, Inc. for what it calls repeated failures to fulfill even the basic
requirements of the General Public License (GPL). Software Freedom
Conservancy filed 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
of the GPL.

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).

“Software Freedom Conservancy looks forward to our opportunity to prove, in state court, our third-party beneficiary right to the complete, corresponding source code as defined by the GPL and related agreements,” adds Sandler. “This claim is central to the right to software repair, as it allows users to exercise the right to copy, share, modify, and reinstall the software on the devices that they receive.”

About The Right-To-Repair Lawsuit

The Software Freedom Conservancy 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.

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
rather than “damages”).

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