ARMIJN HEMEL, 32, lives with his parents in Tiel, a town smack-dab in the middle of the Netherlands. He works as a technology consultant, but spends several hours a week on his avocation: pestering some of the world’s most powerful consumer electronics and technology companies.
Mr. Hemel serves as a volunteer watchman for free, open-source software like the Linux operating system, which competes with Microsoft’s Windows. The use of free software has exploded, particularly in gadgets as varied as exercise bikes, energy meters and smartphones. Companies like Google, TiVo and Sony often opt to piggyback on the work of others rather than going through the ordeal of building all of the software for their products from scratch.
The problem that Mr. Hemel and others have stumbled upon is that some companies, even some technology savvy ones, may be violating the rather easy-to-follow requirements associated with free software licenses. Typically, these include making tweaked versions of a free software product available to the public, or simply giving credit to the original developers.
Last month, for example, Dell received a public tongue-lashing from the geek kingdom and a cease-and-desist letter courtesy of Mr. Hemel for shipping its new Streak tablet without providing the underlying open-source software code. Dell representatives acknowledged the issue and later put the code on a Web site. “We are committed to fulfilling all of our obligations when using open-source code in our product,” said a Dell spokesman in a company blog.
Mr. Hemel says companies should make sure they know the ins and outs of everything they sell. “If we all play by the rules, we can make some really good stuff,” he says.
Quite often, companies that fail to live up to these requirements do so out of ignorance about the rules of engagement. Nonetheless, they become exposed to potentially expensive lawsuits.
For the moment, companies with open-source compliance issues are in luck. Most of the people, like Mr. Hemel, who prowl about for violations seek neither fortune nor painful retribution. The creators of open-source software tend to just want a modicum of recognition and for companies to do the right thing. “Going to court is not the nice thing to do,” Mr. Hemel says.
Typically, Mr. Hemel, who volunteers for gpl-violations.org, an organization named after a popular open-source license, receives an e-mail complaint from someone who suspects that a product may use open-source software without adhering to the rules. Mr. Hemel will sometimes then hop on his bike, ride to a local retailer, conduct a test purchase and then analyze the product to see whether it uses free software and whether the company selling the product has lived up to its end of the bargain.
“We’re amazed by what people send in,” Mr. Hemel says. “There are wireless routers, PC cameras, phones and even an exercise bike that had a small computer so people could race against it.”
The problem may become only worse as the use of open-source software spreads to industries far afield of the somewhat clued-in technology sector. Carmakers, for example, often use open-source software in their entertainment consoles, while energy companies have started to offer smart meters to their customers.
“We are being flooded with more reports than ever before,” Mr. Hemel says.
In the past, he called companies’ customer support lines to tell them about open-source compliance issues. But few call-center operators acted on his concerns, he says.
These days, Mr. Hemel tries to find a contact in the legal department at the companies to discuss the issues. If no response or action follows, a cease-and-desist letter arrives. When the problem lingers, a lawsuit follows.
Gpl-violations.org and similar organizations have pointed a finger at some high-profile companies. In recent years, Cisco Systems, Samsung, Best Buy, Verizon Communications, and many others have been sued by the Software Freedom Law Center.
Lawsuits are typically settled out of court. For example, after Cisco was sued over the software included in its home routers; it agreed to make the software code available, tapped a point person to be responsible for open-source issues and paid an undisclosed amount to settle the case.
Representatives of companies dealing with these complaints say it’s a far more amicable engagement than one would find in the proprietary software world, where hard-charging lawyers come seeking serious payback for what they view as violations of intellectual property rules.
The nonprofit Linux Foundation has started a program meant to teach companies how to comply with open-source licenses. Cisco, Google, Intel, I.B.M., Sony and a host of other companies have backed the effort.
“One of the things that makes this tough is that you have increasingly complicated supply chains,” says Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation. “These devices are made up of different components made all over the place.”
Hewlett-Packard, in particular, has helped develop a standardized inventory list for software so that companies can keep track of their code and licenses. It has also built a tool that lets companies analyze their software.
“These days a developer will do a Google search, find five open-source products that fit his need and the next thing you know one of them is in a product,” says Phil Robb, director of H.P.’s open-source program office. “The same questions should be asked about open-source software that have been asked for commercial software.”
Many companies using free software fear that open-source supporters will become more aggressive and pursue large payments over possible violations. “The thing that terrifies companies is the thought of shipping millions of TVs or phones and then having someone figure out that you didn’t follow the licensing requirements,” says Mark F. Radcliffe, a lawyer at DLA Piper, who handles a variety of cases tied to open-source software. “It could be very costly.”
Mr. Hemel, for his part, says he thinks the situation will improve with these new programs in place.
“Over the last five years,” he says, “I have gone from rage and anger to understanding what the problem is and trying to fix it.”
"Representatives of companies dealing with these complaints say it’s a far more amicable engagement than one would find in the proprietary software world, where hard-charging lawyers come seeking serious payback for what they view as violations of intellectual property rules. "