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    Cyanogen and Google Work Past the Cease and Desist

    Rebecca Schoff, Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, October 02, 2009

    Abstract: News this week of a cease and desist letter sent to Cyanogen, the popular amateur developer of Android software, had members of the Android community hoping for a Jedi mind trick to make the legal threat go away: "Google, this is not the Droid you are looking for...."

    But as the situation unfolds, participants hope that Google and Cyanogen will find a solution that protects Google's closed-source applications without chilling the innovation of the open-source Android community.



    Google's Android is a software platform developed initially for use on mobile phones. In October 2008, Google made Android source code available to the public, royalty free and openly licensed, to encourage industry and amateur adaptation of the code via the Android Open Source Project. Since then, a flourishing community of developers has been providing "mods" and applications for the platform.

    Among the innovators, a developer known by the handle Cyanogen released a modified version of the operating system, garnering a user-base of 30,000 who swear by the increased operating speed and other improvements Cyanogen's mod provides for their phones.

    Last week, however, that community was alarmed to learn from Cyanogen's site that Google had sent him a cease-and-desist letter. Fearing the worst, some were ready to start protests. See the comments at Gizmodo and Android and Me.The movement even spawned its own Hitler video.

    Google responded not with more lawyergrams, but an explanation: the company's aim was not to stop modifications of the base, open-source Android code, but rather to halt redistribution of its own closed-source applications, which Cyanogen had shipped along with his mod. Some view the redistribution of the closed-source apps (Google Maps, Android Market, gTalk, Gmail, and Youtube) as a "technicality", since they would ship only to those who have already bought "Google Experience" phones, which come with the apps already installed. Rooting the phone and installing a new mod erases the apps, so Cyanogen was saving these users the step of re-installing the software—and without the apps, the operating system doesn't have much functionality. On Google's side, however, distribution of proprietary software is a protected exclusive right of copyright owners, and Cyanogen's latest mod did include an upgrade of Android Market that Google had not yet released through its ordinary distribution channels. The loss of control over distribution of its applications could impair Google's (or any other company's) ability to make deals and build relationships based on the licensing of those products.

    The latest news is that Google has reached out to the open-source community to make available previously unreleased tools (makefiles and configuration files), which will make it easier to develop mods that work "out of the box" without Google's closed-source applications. (For more, see Technology News.) In addition, Cyanogen is working on stripping Google's proprietary apps out of the CyanogenMod and on an application that will streamline the backup and restore process for owners of Google Experience phones who wish to root and then reinstall the proprietary apps. And who's assisting with these projects? Among others, Google staff. (See Cyanogen's blog.)

    In the midst of the march forward there has been a lot of lingering criticism of the decision to send the C&D "nastygram" in the first place. Why not call Cyanogen first and work out a solution without the "lawyerisms"? True, sending a C&D into an open-source community is like using a table saw to cut your hair—you should probably try some other tools first. The backlash against "lawyerisms," though, might be obscuring another solution to these kinds of problems, and that's clear language up front about what parts of a code-base are freely licensed, and what is not. Experienced drafters of licensing agreements, which come in a myriad of collaboration-facilitating forms, might be just the guys to help write that language, so that everyone understands how to work together from the outset. Knowing where that line is between proprietary and open source can be complicated and clear agreements can help. In other words, IP lawyers might not be completely evil: search your feelings, you know it to be true.

     


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