Skype has been found guilty of violating the GNU General Public License (GPL) by a Munich, Germany regional court, a decision likely to influence the way companies approach GPL compliance in the future.
The decision found that Skype had violated the GPL by the way it distributed a voice over IP (VoIP) handset, the SMCWSKP100, which incorporates the GPL-covered Linux kernel in its firmware.
The phone is manufactured by SMC, the target of a separate case that hasn't yet been decided, but the court noted that Skype was liable to fulfil the conditions of the GPL because it sold the phone on its website.
Skype violated the licence by its failure to supply a copy of the source code to users along with the phone, and by failing to provide a copy of the GPL itself with the phone, the court said.
Skype had responded to the charges by including with the phones a URL where buyers could access the GPL and the source code involved, but the court found this wasn't sufficient.
The GPL allows companies to distribute source code over the internet separately from shipped products, but only under certain conditions, and the court ruled that these hadn't been met. The GPL also stipulates that buyers must receive the text of the licence along with the product.
The decision reinforces that companies must adhere to the conditions of the GPL just as with any other contract, and that "inaccuracies" aren't to be allowed, according to the court.
It also emphasises that organisations can be held liable for GPL violations even if they are simply distributing a product and don't themselves manufacture it.
Another implication is in the fact that neither of the two companies involved is German - Skype being based in Luxembourg and SMC in Spain. The decision shows that companies may be held liable for GPL violations in any country, even if the GPL isn't upheld in their home country.
The case was brought by gpl-violations.org, a German organisation run by open source software developer Harald Welte, which aims to force companies to take the GPL seriously. Welte has said he aims to settle most cases out of court, taking companies to court only if discussions fail to make them abide by the conditions of the licence.
In 2005, for instance, Welte obtained a court injunction against security software maker Fortinet, banning the company from distributing its products until it complied with GPL provisions. As a result, the company agreed to make some of its source code available.
This week's decision is likely to mean a fine against Skype and will force the company to adhere to the licence and source code distribution requirements of the licence.