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Linux developer sues VMware over GPL violations

Long time Linux developer Christoph Hellwig is suing VMware for illegally using Linux kernel code in its ESXi hypervisor products.

Christoph Hellwig, well-known Linux kernel developer, stepped up his seven-year long crusade against VMware, filing suit in Hamburg, Germany against the company for what he claims are violations of the GNU General Public License.

Backed with funding from the Software Freedom Conservancy, Hellwig is accusing VMware of blending portions of the code he developed for the Linux kernel, called 'vmkernel,' with that of VMware's proprietary ESXi hypervisor products. The suit contends this is a clear violation of the terms laid down in version 2 of the GPL.

VMware officials, of course, describe the accusations as "without merit," but didn't bother going into much detail as to why. Given how important the ESXi hypervisor is to the company's overall virtualization strategy, one might expect a more compelling rebuttal.

If the suit reaches the courts – which has rarely happened in similar suits involving open source (typically the parties come to some sort of accommodation before then) – and VMware loses, it could cause significant disruption to the company's business.

What complicates this particular case, as some pundits have speculated the past few days, is that it may not be a simple case of accidental noncompliance. It could come down to a disagreement over the differences in the interpretation of the terms of the GPL. Resolving the suit based on those issues could take some time.

A statement released by the Software Freedom Conservancy notes that in 2011 it discovered that VMware "had failed to provide any source code for the version of BusyBox included in VMware's ESXi products," something mandated by Busybox's GPL v2 license.

The prepared statement went on to say the Conservancy sought compliance on all GPL components part of the ESXi project, but that the "progress" of those negotiations slowed through the end of 2013. The Conservancy states that Hellwig started working more closely with the organization in late 2012 to examine "the non-compliant releases of ESXi that VMware provided."

Authors of the GPL, The Free Software Foundation (FSF), also issued a statement throwing its support behind Hellwig's suit. The organization states VMware is free to use, modify and distribute software under the GPL, as long as they make "available the human-readable source code corresponding to their versions of the software when they distribute it," something VMware has yet to do.

Late last year, VMware's legal counsel informed the Conservancy it would not stop distribution of any licensed work based on Hellwig's copyrights and so the Conservancy had no other avenue but to "support Hellwig's court action."

Hellwig has been nipping at VMware 's heels over GPL violations for some time. The first time he accused the company of violating the terms of the GPL was in 2006 through its use of the Linux Kernel Mailing List, threatening to sue the company even back then.

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