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Linksys routers caught up in open source dispute

Linksys and other wireless networking vendors are involved in a copyright dispute over Broadcom's use of open source code in its chipsets. A resolution could involve making some chipset code available to the public, but an analyst says Linksys router users will not likely be exposed to any security risks as a result.

Irvine, Calif.-based chipmaker Broadcom Corp. has run afoul of the copyright protections of the open source code behind Linux. A number of wireless networking vendors that use Broadcom's chips in their products are working toward a resolution, but their customers aren't likely to face any significant repercussions.

The Free Software Foundation, a Boston-based organization that controls licensing for Linux and other open source programs, claims that Broadcom committed a copyright violation by using open source code in its 802.11g router chipset and not making that code public, said Bradley M. Kuhn, executive director of the group.

When an organization uses open source software under the GNU General Public License (GPL) instead of paying a licensing fee, it is required to make that code -- and any derivatives -- available to the public.

"You can sell your product for any price and make as many copies as you want, but you are also required to give everyone else the same rights you had in using the free and open code," said Kuhn. "The license is not used to extort money, but to encourage sharing."

Linksys, recently acquired by Cisco Systems Inc., uses the chipset in its model WRT54G wireless broadband router. The Free Software Foundation is in discussions with both Broadcom and Linksys in an effort to resolve the dispute. Kuhn described the negotiations with Broadcom as amicable, and said that he was happy with Cisco's responsiveness as well.

Linksys declined requests for an interview about the issue, but spokesperson Karen Sohl said that the company is close to resolving the issue, and is "100% committed to seeing that it is resolved and done right."

Neither Broadcom nor at least one unnamed vendor that uses Broadcom's chipset has made the code available, Kuhn said. However, Linksys has posted some of the code on its Web site.

Broadcom, which also declined to comment, would not say if other vendors would be affected by the problem. However, that is a possibility, said Aaron Vance, an analyst with Phoenix-based Synergy Research Group.

As one of the top wireless LAN chipsets, Broadcom's chips appear in products from many different vendors. Buffalo Technology Inc. uses Broadcom chips in its 802.11g wireless LAN router. NetGear Inc. uses chips from multiple vendors in its wireless LAN products, but a company spokesperson could not confirm whether it uses chips from Broadcom.

Neither company could confirm whether it was in talks with the foundation.

While making the source code available may seem like a small price to pay for using open source code, Vance said that vendors may be reticent to do so, for fear of giving away their competitive advantage.

"If the code is free and available to everyone, then it does not help to differentiate your product. It's not advantageous to the vendor," Vance said.

Nonetheless, Kuhn said that 80% to 90% of the time the copyright violation is simply a misunderstanding, and companies comply and move on. The Free Software Foundation has never taken a business to court over this issue, though it does have a pro bono attorney that handles cases such as the one with Cisco and Broadcom.

Without knowing exactly what was being disclosed, Vance said that it was hard to determine what the security risks might be for end users. However, he said it is unlikely that making the code available would cause any security problems. He said wireless networking vendors are only disclosing GPL and derivative code, not the entire code that runs their products. He added that most companies are careful not to include any open source code in their security software to begin with.


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