Android, GPL violations and Google
A bit over a year ago, I wrote about how an incredible number of Android tablets on the market were in violation of the terms of the GPL. I've had rather a lot else to do since then so it's now awfully out of date - but taking a quick browse through the current stack of cheaper devices indicates that things aren't all that much better. We've got source code for some chipsets that were missing it before, but to compensate we've got a whole bunch of new hardware that's entirely lacking. It's all pretty poor, really.
At the time, I wrote the following:
"(Side note: People sometimes ask why Google aren't doing more to prevent infringing devices. For the vast majority of these cases, Google's sole contribution has been to put Android source code on a public website. Red Hat own more of the infringing code than Google do. There's no real reason why Google should be the ones taking the lead role here, and there's fairly sound business reasons why it's not in their interest to do so)"
Factually speaking, nothing's changed. Each of these devices contains code owned by Google, and Google could absolutely take legal action against the vendors. Equally, so could Red Hat, Intel, Nokia and dozens of other companies who hold copyright on portions of the code carried on these devices, and so could thousands of individuals around the world. Nobody's obliged to enforce their copyrights, and in the absence of anyone else doing so it's unreasonable to insist that Google should do it.
Google gives Android away. This seems like an odd thing for them to do, given that it's a significant engineering effort and costs a lot of money to produce. But remember what Android brings to Google - it's a platform with a well-integrated mechanism for distributing advertising to users. Scanning the market shows a huge number of ad-supported apps, and Google's getting money for every single one of those that gets shown. The more Android devices, the bigger the market for apps - and the wider their advertising reach.
In other words: unscrupulous hardware vendors save money by ignoring their GPL obligations. This lets them appeal on price, increasing the number of Android devices in use and increasing Google's profits. Google makes money off other people's violation of the GPL.
Could Google do anything to stop this? Yes. They could sue for copyright infringement, but that kind of thing's time consuming and awkward and any argument about the GPL always seems to end up as a big argument involving conspiracy theories. Instead, Google could attach some extra conditions to the Android trademark. Requiring that the trademark only be attached to GPL-compliant products ought to allow Google to take advantage of the existing well-tested mechanisms for seizing counterfeit goods, providing a direct economic incentive for companies to come into compliance. For added marks, they could restrict the adwords code to devices that use the trademark - if the vendor removes the trademark, applications depending on the adwords functionality would refuse to run and Google wouldn't make money off the infringing hardware.
Or, of course, they could just carry on making extra money as a result of vendors denying users the freedoms granted by the copyright holders. Although that sounds kind of evil to me.