Smith continues, "Sometimes, some companies, as soon as you say the words 'license violations,' lawyer up, and you have to start talking to the lawyers. But even lawyers will usually calm down when you explain that you're not in it for the money, and you're not looking for trouble -- that you just want compliance. Because they realize that, if that's really true, then it's going to be much cheaper for them in the long run to comply rather than fight you every step of the way."
In Cisco's case, the only unusual aspect seems to be that, to judge from the fact that Cisco has been working on compliance with the FSF, the company has apparently acknowledged at least some GPL violations. And yet it seemingly has been slow to correct violations, and reluctant to discuss measures to prevent future problems.
"Were Cisco quicker to respond, we would have made a lot better progress, and we'd probably be done by now," Smith says. "The real issue that has pushed us to file suit is that we had got to the point where we really needed to start talking to Cisco about the past and the future -- in particular, what they were going to do to try to mitigate the damage done by previous violations, and what they were going to do to make sure that violations didn't happen in the future. But, despite several meetings and phone calls, they really seemed uninterested in having a conversation about these things. So far as they were concerned, they had fixed all the issues, or at least most of them, and they felt they were done with the process. But that's not really sufficient. Over the last five years, there's been so many violations coming from Cisco that it's clear that something is fundamentally wrong with the company that compliance isn't being given the attention it deserves."
Asked if the case meant that the usual process for compliance had failed, Smith replied, "That's absolutely right. This is our first suit for GPL compliance, and it's not a decision we entered into lightly. It took months of deliberation. We did it because we feel it's the best way to obtain GPL compliance in this particular case."
Possibly, a successful case against Cisco might have strategic value for the FSF by discouraging other large companies to comply with the GPL. However, Smith denies that such considerations went into the suit.
"At best, that's a nice side effect," he says. "Yeah, it would make my job easier if that happened, but that didn't factor into our decision-making process. Our decision-making process was focused on this particular case. We felt we were looking at two feasible ways we could go. One is that we could keep telling Cisco about reports we had received and working with them to address them for an indeterminate amount of time -- quite possibly as long as Cisco was in the business. On the other hand, we could file suit to get this problem meaningfully addressed at the company."
Smith does admit to having worried about how the case might be received in the free and open source software communities. "We were concerned for a while because Cisco does comply with some of its obligations under the GPL," he says. "So, at first glance, it might look like they're complying, and we were concerned that people in the community might be confused about what the issue was. But people have been quick to understand."
Possibly, the reason for the understanding is that the FSF's allegations are easy to investigate by anyone who is interested, simply by seeing what source code is available on the Cisco site or by making a formal request as a customer for it and seeing what happens. Or perhaps the community's distrust of large companies predisposes many to favor the FSF against any large corporation. Either way, should Cisco take the case to court and win, it might still lose in the court of public opinion -- including, perhaps, among its peers at the Linux Foundation, assuming that membership in the foundation carries any implication of dedication to free software methods and ideals.
However, despite the community support and the reasons that may be behind it, Smith wants to make it clear that the case does not signal a change in the way that the FSF seeks compliance with its licenses.
"We're not looking at filing more suits. It's a strain on FSF resources, and it's time and money that could be better spent advocating for free software in other ways. But, ultimately, we have to make sure that the license is protected. And in this particular case, filing suit unfortunately, seems the best to do that."