BMW and the GPL

by @edent | # # # # # | 7 comments | Read ~10,213 times.

I accidentally caused a little brouhaha last week – for which I would like to apologise.

In my blog post about BMW’s unencrypted software updates, I said:

Judging from the files, it would appear that the infotainment system is made by Magneti Marelli with components by Wind River, AutoSAR, and Nvidia Tegra. Looking at the copious mentions of systemd and freedesktop it’s a Linux system!

Hmmm… I wonder if they’re respecting the GPL…?

I want to make it clear that, at the time, I had no evidence to suggest that any Open Source Software was being used in my vehicle. It was idle speculation on my part.

Anyway, some kind Internet stranger decided to fire off an email to BMW Australia demanding access to the source code. The customer service agents refused.

…customer must provide the 7 digit VIN and accept the usage rights agreement. Part of the usage rights agreement states that the software is protected by copyright and BMW is the sole owner.
So in this case it is not subject to the requirements of a “Public” licence
BMW Australia

It would be an exaggeration to say “at which point all hell broke loose” – but there were some sternly worded tweets and comments condemning BMW for their abuse of Free Software.

Here’s the thing – contacting customer services like that was entirely the wrong approach. Customer services aren’t trained for the 0.001% of people who might be interested in an esoteric matter of legal licensing. Crying foul because a minimum wage rep didn’t understand an obscure technical reference is counter productive.

A quick search shows a BMW Open Source site which is highly active. An email to them, or to BMW’s head office, or their legal team, would have generated a far more useful reply.

As it happens, someone within BMW contacted me to explain where the Open Source Licences are within the vehicle. I’ll be honest, they are well hidden – and not referenced in the user manual as far as I could see – but they are there.

Here’s proof:

Now, this is a somewhat of a “beware of the leopard” situation, I grant you. But, somewhere in that mass of text is the email address you need to contact if you want copies of the code.

BMW GPL Email Address-

So, I’ve dropped BMW an email and will update you if/when I hear back. They may not respond – in which case we can heap opprobrium upon them – but let’s give them a chance rather than flailing about and calling every scratch a palpable hit, eh?

I’ve received a response from BMW.

I’ve sent them my details and will report back on what they send me.

7 thoughts on “BMW and the GPL

  1. Alex B says:

    And never mind that someone to whom the binaries have never been distributed (i.e. they don’t own a BMW that uses the relevant software) doesn’t have any right to the source code anyway.

  2. Iain says:

    No, Alex, that’s only true if you distribute under section 3a). BMW are distributing under section 3b). Your choice as a commercial distributor is to ship the source code with the product [3a)], or provide a written offer which anybody can redeem for three years [3b)].

    1. Alex B says:

      Aha, I always forget about the “written offer” clause…

      I’m surprised vendors in this situation don’t just ship a CD-Rom of the code to buyers. I’d have thought that would be cheaper for them in the long run.

    2. Aigarius says:

      I am not sure of the legal precedent existing, but it is possible to read 3b as only requiring provision of the source to any third parties in posession of the written offer. In the long term it does not matter as anyone that has the written offer and has received the code may then redistribute, but it is still questionable if existance of a written offer somewhere is enough to be able to request thing by anyone.
      Say company A makes something for company B on the basis of GPL code. Company B gets the binaries and written offer of source. Company B uses the software internally, no further diatribution happens. Does an unrelated Company X have the right to ask Company A for the source? I do not think so. GPL was designed to protect rights of users of the software not just everyone.

  3. Rubin says:

    doesn’t whisper systems openly use linux in several distributions, and provides source code? I don’t think BMW really has to, if whisper systems already is…

    1. Pillow says:

      You can pass along somebody else’s offer to ship the source to you, but in the end if you’re using GPL licensed code, the effort to be compliant has to come from you.

  4. Carlson says:

    Good that the email worked. Customer service would understand you and keep you indefinitely in loop. None the less it will be interesting to know what could we discover after 3 years.

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