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  Dell Computer Acts Swiftly to Fix Licence Problem
Posted by: Rick Moen on Friday June 23, @10:39AM

Dell Computer has been generally very supportive of the Linux operating system. This is a (qualified) success story about how Dell was notified of a problem it had inadvertently created concerning GPL compliance, and how the matter is being amicably resolved.

Many of us noticed the company's Linux-support page for its model 7500 laptop, on its Technical Support site at That page had (and has) a number of support files for those running Red Hat 6.1 and 6.2. It also featured Linux-driver RPM archives for the 3Com 3C575C ethernet card and the ESS Maestro sound chipset.

On June 7, out of curiosity, I retrieved and unpacked (using rpm2cpio) those archives, which each contained (just) extremely brief instruction files and a driver binary. Nothing else. Running "strings" on the 3C575C driver turned up Donald Becker's copyright and GNU General Public Licence notice.

I checked with Mr. Becker and confirmed that he had not given permission to omit the GPL's requirement for source-code access, and so sent a brief, polite note to Dell Technical Support, advising them that they were (inadvertently) violating Becker's copyright, but that this could be effectively remedied by listing matching source-code archives on the same Web page. I also suggested that they probably had a similar obligation regarding the ESS Maestro driver, depending on its origin. On June 12 and June 14, I sent additional polite reminders, this time to the responsible webmasters.

Finally, on Thursday, June 22, I received a very courteous note from David Shelton, apparently a manager at Dell, thanking me for pointing out the problem, apologising for the delayed response, and telling me that the files had been removed from their Web site pending investigation. And there matters stand, so far.

I wrote back to Mr. Shelton as follows:

"That is absolutely no problem; I fully understand.

This is actually a quite minor matter that can be easily fixed, and nobody should fault you guys for dealing with it. To the contrary, I imagine you will get major respect points in the Linux community.

Further, if I can assist in any way, I would be glad to do so -- up to and including finding the matching source code and packaging it for Dell's convenience."

I'm recounting the above details now, rather than waiting for the end of the matter, because I believe I've spotted some lessons that will prove useful to the open-source community:

(1) It costs nothing to be polite. Good will and a desire to do the right thing are more common than you might think. Innocent oversights and misinterpretations are a part of life, and make a fine starting assumption.

(2) Some things take time. Remember, if you write a corporation about software-licensing problems, you will be lucky if your message reaches the correct person quickly, or even at all. Most companies will have never seen anything like it before, and will not be equipped to handle it.

(3) Worse, you're raising a legal question. That means it will (eventually) get referred to the corporate attorneys, which means it will take markedly longer. Everything slows down when lawyers get involved.

In short, don't expect the firm to react on Internet time, and expect to need persistence. The three queries and two weeks my initiative required strike me as relatively lucky: I was expecting a half-dozen notices and a month's delay.

Although it hasn't closed out the case, yet (and hasn't really had time), I would like to thank Dell Computer for its courteous and scrupulous attention to the matter. They deserve our support in this matter.

Rick Moen

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    ( Reply )

    Re: Dell Computer Acts Swiftly to Fix Licence Problem
    by Bruce Perens on Friday June 23, @12:36PM
    I correspond with Michael Dell from time to time. He has invested in some Linux and Open Source companies, and would have no desire to have this sort of license problem. If it were ever necessary to "escalate" a problem with his company, I could bring it up with him.



    [ Reply to this ]
    Re: Dell Computer Acts Swiftly to Fix Licence Prob
    by WaldoJ on Tuesday June 27, @01:03PM
    What's really great about this is that I don't think most large companies are used to politeness in such situations.

    Could you imagine if Dell had used a closed-source program without paying royalties? They'd be sued, of course. And if they reverse-engineered a program and used that to develop a new program? I couldn't even guess what would result from that.

    Rick, you're absolutely right that a little politeness goes a heck of a long way. I think by making OSS the path of least resistance (and greatest profit), we can make it a no-brainer for companies like Dell to both use and contribute to OSS. Kill 'em with kindness.
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