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Google Issues Cease & Desist to Open Source Android Developer

Google recently cracked down on popular Android MODer Cyanogen. Does this mark the beginning of the end for Android or just a speed-bump on the way to market dominance?

Android MODer issued Cease and Desist order

Last week the Android world was delivered a heavy blow. What happened? Did oft-blamed Microsoft slay the open source darling of the mobile world with a better release of Windows Mobile? Hardly.

Did Mr. Jobs’ return to the helm at Apple mark the end of Android’s honey-moon ride? Nope, sorry Steve.

Did major manufacturers decide to drop Android from upcoming device releases? Not that I am aware of.

The shot heard round the mobile world was from within and could easily be classified as “friendly fire”. The blow came from Google itself. Here’s a very quick summary of what happened.

The Android programmer who goes by the handle “Cyanogen” was issued a legal “Cease and Desist” order from Google’s legal team. Cyanogen is one of the numerous programmers who have embraced the open source Android project with vigor by downloading the Android source from the Android Open Source Project’s repository and actually improved it. Did anyone notice? Yes — word has it they there are over 30,000 active users of his code. The problem is, Google doesn’t like it when their “closed source” applications are redistributed. These are popular “built-in” applications such as:

  • GMail
  • Application Market
  • Google Maps
  • YouTube

The reaction from the Android user and developer community has been significant — emotion is running high. Some are warning of a coming Android Apocalypse, vowing to never purchase another Android device again and switch to Apple’s iPhone. Some are “threatening” to perhaps go back to a non-smartphone altogether! Others are laying the case that Google should not sue this developer but rather hire him to work for Google. That idea is countered with the thought that hiring Cyanogen would be the worst thing to happen to the Android community because that would prevent him from releasing his code.

There are of course some more moderate voices in the debate as well. These voices are laying out the case that Google never distributed the source code for their “applications” but only for the Android operating system itself — therefore Google is well within their rights to lay claim to their proprietary code. The implication is that if the source code was not released, but only the binaries for their application, those programs are not open source and therefore cannot be re-distributed without “written consent”. No doubt this is in the fine print already. If they let Cyanogen get away with releasing their “closed source” applications what is to stop the next programmer, or even manufacturer from doing the same? Legal precedents and all of that. I am far from a lawyer, but from a legal perspective this is probably an accurate interpretation.

Opinions abound and are free for the asking — unless they are from an attorney of course. Setting aside for a moment who is right and who is wrong, let’s take a moment to talk about what it means to build a MODified Android ROM in the first place.

What is MOD-ing anyway?

What you think of “MOD-ing” might vary depending on where you sit and from where you draw your income. The technical description of what Cyanogen is doing is rather simple — though non-trivial for the casual observer as they say. Android source code is available for download and building. In fact, the Android project has been lauded for its “open” approach to development. Download the code. Build it. Improve it. Enjoy it. Share it. It’s the “people’s code” after all, right? Well, that is just what Cyanogen and many others have done. He downloaded the code, improved it and shared it with others. And he’s not alone — there are many such MODified ROMS in the wild.

The changes made by the MODi-ng community are significant — things like improved application launchers, running applications from SD cards, tweaked CPU optimization, enhanced access to APIs and file systems. This is powerful stuff — and users love it. Application developers love it too because they can build apps that leverage this new functionality. When code at this level is modified, you cannot simply download an application to the device and casually install it — you must re-flash your device with an “image” of the code because low-level drivers must be installed. Doing this means getting low-level control over the device — often called “rooting” the device. Does this kind of thing help Android? In a word — absolutely.

Open source means more than freedom — it means speed. When Google, or any major software vendor, releases code they have to “get it right” the first time. Or at least make every reasonable effort to do so. This means more layers of quality assurance, documentation, support and even a coordinated marketing effort. And don’t forget the layers of “organization” that lends itself to slower decision making and CYA’ing. And of course, it takes a large budget to support all of this infrastructure and process.

Let’s consider someone in the open source community releasing code — there simply is a different expectation. The code is expected to work, and even be very good. However the consumer of Cyanogen’s code — or anyone else on the MOD scene for that matter — is going to have a much higher tolerance for pain than the average T-Mobile G1 customer running the latest release from Google. If a release turns a device into a brick or a new feature is requested, the open source programmer can fix the code, add the feature, and then re-release the code. No need to run everything past the legal and marketing departments! Ah, the beauty of open source innovation and the intrepid pioneering users who shun the fear of bricked-devices and install build after build of code — they are the test-pilots who help push the envelope to better and better software. In the end the platform is greatly improved over a “stock” build of the operating system and the envelope is pushed. This is what everyone had in mind when Android arrived on the scene, carried on the shoulders of “do no evil” Google.

So what is wrong with this? So far so good?

The problem is that people like those built-in applications also. Imagine running an Android device without email, YouTube, maps or market? The new code delivered in the MOD may be awesome, but without the core applications the device would feel naked. So, Cyanogen simply “included” those applications in his ROM images. He even included the new Android Market application — before Google did. Oops. Someone’s upset — Google did not authorize the re-distribution of their code and now they have to do something about it.

Even though the (binary) code is found in the repository they make available, MODers are not allowed to distribute it. Here is an interesting thing to ponder: in order to have an Android device upon which to install a MOD, the device previously had a “licensed” copy of those built-in applications. Of course, Android will be popping up on other devices so this argument may not hold water before long. This is getting confusing.

So, Google issues a Cease and Desist and everything erupts. What next?

Practical Implications and Unintended Consequences

What does all of this mean? Hopefully cooler heads will prevail in this — and my guess is that if nothing else, Google will improve their communication on what is and what is not permitted with their code. MODing will continue and the boundaries will always be tested. That is what boundaries are for anyway — and all the more in the rapidly changing landscape of an open source mobile platform competing in the turbulent wireless industry. Some will find the boundaries too much and they will go “underground”. From all appearances Cyanogen wants to play by the rules. Time will tell. If nothing else, he’s received his “15 minutes of fame”.

The Android community loves Android as an open source product — but we want, no, we need Google to succeed commercially. Without Google’s pocket-book power, Android would not be what it is today and we would not have the opportunity to have this discussion in the first place. In fact, if you are reading this President Obama (ok, of course he isn’t reading this…), I don’t even mind if Google generates an obscene (legal) profit. The more successful Google is commercially the more they can pour back into the platform and the community. So I think this is a good debate and we should use this opportunity to move things forward constructively.

The hope is that innovation is not unnecessarily stifled in the process. There’s the rub. Can Google succeed commercially by protecting their interests and at the same time keep Android open source? I think they can — though Google needs to consider the perhaps unintended consequence of turning people away from Android by their actions. Life is full of these unintended consequences and Google is walking a fine line. They are not asking me what to do, but if they were, here are my brief suggestions to Google:

  1. Be clear about your licensing terms — and do so in plain language, not lawyer speak. Give examples. Use pictures if you want. We’ll understand.
  2. Invest in an environment where MODing can avoid going under-ground. Embrace it, don’t fear it. Encourage innovation. The Android Developer Challenges are great — let’s do similar things for low-level stuff, not just applications.
  3. Make a clear and public commitment to incorporating MODer code as often as possible. The result will be a far improved platform. And it will broaden the fan base — something every new platform needs, no matter how deep your pockets are.

I’ll let you know if Google calls and asks for my advice. Don’t hold your breath. In the end, this is a growing pain and Android fans everywhere should be pleased that Android is important enough to fight over commercially. Android has arrived.

Comments on "Google Issues Cease & Desist to Open Source Android Developer"

greimer

I\’m confused. These apps from Google, the ones that Google is angry at Cyanogen for redistributing; does Google distribute them for free, or does Google charge for them?

Also, if they are \’closed source\’ like the article says, how does Cyanogen modify them?

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fableson

The apps are included on official Android builds like the T-Mobile G1. Cyanogen is not actually modifying these apps, he is just including them. Here\’s an analogy:

You purchase a corvette (or insert your favorite car…)

You take the stock engine and suspension out.

Do a total body make-over – new paint, new spoiler, whatever.

You like what you see and you want to drive the car.

Obviously the car needs an engine, so put the engine and suspension back in – don\’t change anything.

That is what he did — changed a bunch of the things which are open source, and then put the core apps back in so the device was usable for things like email, maps, etc.

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dj13241

I have been doing the same with Windows Mobile for years (not modifing source code though) … So far (to the best of my knowledge) Microsoft simply requested that no ROM image be posted on the development site … We can post the tools and instructions for building a custom ROM image. Microsoft/HTC knows that they need the \”hackers\” to find problems and work-arounds.

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pff21@yahoo.com

Kudos for a nice, even-handed summation of the issue(s) – you even touched on the point I think was the impetus for Google\’s actions: the premature release of its new Market app.

Thank you for your article, keep up the great work.

pf

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caseyk1978

Google could simply develop a way to deploy the core applications to a device running a modded image without the core apps. They simply want to have control of the core app distribution, I don\’t see why they can\’t do that. I install their apps on my ipod via the apple app store.

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ddennedy

Google needs to support their apps. They have put forth the QA effort based on a certain platform of which they have knowledge. They can not extend that effort to platform changes over which they have no oversight or control.

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lamapper

Excellent point all and I mean that, especially fableson, greimer and pff21.

The article states the Google placed the binaries in the repository, “Even though the (binary) code is found in the repository they make available, MODers are not allowed to distribute it” and this line, IMO says it all, “in order to have an Android device upon which to install a MOD, the device previously had a “licensed” copy of those built-in applications.”

And it does not appear that the MODer in this case was modifying the proprietary source code, just including it in his binaries as it was included in the repository in the first place.

Okay we get it MODers can not distribute the proprietary code, slap em on the wrist, Cyanogen stop “including” the un modified binaries that Google already puts in the repository in with the binaries you build. There are other ways to include them, just not as elegant. Its a shame this event even happened.

I will purchase a smart hand held that will run Android or Maemo or (put HERE your open source software that is based on a Linux distro that will make a hand held “smart”); however I will NOT purchase any hand held, cellphone from any of the Wireless Cellular phone providers that will not let me install Linux. Because tethering, being unable to select between WiFi or Cellular, not being able to install apps, store data on the Micro SD cards and generally modify the software on the device to do what I need it to do ~ just is NOT smart!

If the device will not let you install one or more distributions of Linux, it is NOT SMART! I would recommend that you purchase ONLY smart hardware that is NOT locked down ONLY to make the vendor money and prevent you from using the device in an intelligent manner.

NO LINUX ~ NO OPTIONS ~ NOT SMART

Please note that I did not say that you MUST run a Linux distro, only that you should have that option.

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zakhurlifesbane

That\’s not the way to win friends and influence people. I am going to stick with the OpenMoko and I am NOT going to install Android on it. I wasn\’t happy with the development platform anyway, and now I have two reasons to stay away.

And, yeah, I once worked for Google. Usually their actions make more sense, and they are not (yet) evil.

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bobberm

Interesting article, maybe they forgot about their motto:\”Do no evil\”!
Of course their main interest is in making money by advertising. Maybe
they don\’t want people to have the freedom to block ads in the apps for Android. Take a look at Chrome. There is no way to block out ads. The Firefox has this capability, and I suspect that the Googlers are not very happy about this and they don\’t want the same thing to happen to any Android apps. But I\’m just a wee bit cynical. ;-) Bobby B.

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csmart

While I do not like the fact that Google isn\’t releasing these applications open source, the simple fact is that the developers do not have the right to distribute them.

End of story.

Unfortunately your car analogy is fundamentally flawed. When you buy a car, you have the right to drive it but not replicate it. You can modify it and void the warranty, no-one\’s going to stop you. What you cannot do however, is get another chassis from the factory, add your mods and give it to a friend.

You only bought one car.

Likewise, the developers only have the rights to use the closed source components on their own device. They cannot distribute them.

Having said that, I agree that it\’s not a great way to win friends and influence people, but if you want to use *ANY* software you have to abide by the conditions thereof, free software or not.

-c

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jaygodse

@csmart is right on the money. Google owns the copyrights to gmail, youtube, etc. As a contributor to Android, it is also a copyright owner (along with others) of Android. As a copyright owner, they can license it under any terms they want.

Google has chosen to open-source Android under the Apache 2.0 license, which means that others may freely distribute the code or the code of derivative works under any terms they choose. That is what cyanogen was doing.

By the same token, Google has licensed gmail & youtube differently. In that case, they have granted each license holder the right to use a copy for free and without warranty, but have not granted licensees distribution rights or the right to make and distribute derivative works. That too is Google\’s right, and that right was never granted to cyanogen in a license.

Acquiring a license to use software without cost doesn\’t imply that the copyright owner has also granted distribution rights and the right to make derivative works.

Google is well within the law to do this.

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fableson

Chris,

Agreed, you are not allowed to replicate the car (or anything beyond your licensing terms). That was not the intended implication of my comment — I am merely attempting to explain the manner in which the applications, like the engine, were \”put back in\”.

I think this entire situation is actually very healthy for Android — it is helping to draw the \”boundaries\” that have arguably always been in the \”fine print\” — which is seldom read. However, a real-life drama helps teach the lesson.

Android is getting lots of news cycles ahead of some new product launches – publicity always helps. Where would Paris Hilton be without a little video that got leaked on the net? Or Joe the Plumber who dared ask a question and wound up a bigger story than either of the presidential candidates for a week or so?

Despite the naysayers who will accuse Google of being evil for protecting their copyright, I personally think they are only \”guilty\” of sending a confusing message — and now they have the opportunity to remedy that. That\’s a very good thing.

Cyanogen vows to continue building cool MODs for Android — that is good news. And he\’s working on some tools for \”taking the engine out and putting it back in\” after the paint job. That way none of the copyrighted applications are re-distributed. He\’s even working on alternative marketplace stuff. In the end, he\’s gone from a little-known relatively unknown developer to a front-page item. After the dust settles, he\’s in a much better place than he was a week ago, I am guessing.

There has been a bit of clamor over the need for open source mail, youtube, and mapping clients for Android after this debacle. Folks who are interested in doing so can rewrite those apps and distribute them however they like — open source, freely in the App Market, or they can even decide to charge something in exchange for all of their hardwork. If there is demand, it will happen. So long as the government stays out of things, markets have a tendency to be efficient. I expect the same here.

In the end, I think everyone is a winner after this. Can you accuse me of viewing the glass as \”half full\”? Yeah, perhaps.

Frank

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stoggy

I have never owned a cell phone so I don\’t know what i\’m talking about… I am not a lawyer so i don\’t know what I\’m talking about… I use linux so I don\’t know what I am talking about… I have opinions so i know everything.

Google is my default search engine and I use gmail. I hate calendars, phones, chatting, and people in general.

Is cyanogen including stuff that the phone user couldn\’t get himself and install on cyanogen\’s code? Or is he just including it to save people from having to re-download these apps? Making it easier for less skilled people, aka customers? I guess if that one app hadn\’t been released yet, but then how did he get it? like cracking or stealing or …?

Would google ever use cyanogen\’s code? If so will the user have to install G1 and then go to cyanogen\’s website/ftp/whatever and load his stuff?

I still don\’t understand why him re-distributing google\’s software would be a problem. Even if he ported it to the iphone now google can sell software to iphone users. Just sell a dvd or whatever. If someone buy\’s their phone then they get it for free/part of the price. Will google pay him to sell their software to these new customers?

Sounds like cyanogen should issue a, \”Hurry the Fuck Up or I\’ll sue, cause you are slowing me down.\” I wouldn\’t threaten this unless you mean it though.

Like Fedora not including flash, but then you go to adobe.com, download it, and run yum install flash… ? WTF they use rpm but rpm cant use them. Why does this not sound like opensource? But in RHEL you just have to click the I agree button after the install, ok. I don\’t mind downloading flash from adobe but I wish it would just work from the install, so more people could use it.

If I use google they use what I put in the search engine but they have not gotten expressed written consent from me. They allow people to make apps for their phone but then they don\’t allow you to use somethings? It sounds like google\’s lawyers would be chomping on their own feet. What if google users then sued google for using info from all of their search engine requests. I didn\’t sign or agree to anything when I set google in my quick search bar, well its implied. That won\’t/can\’t/has never held up in court.

So just don\’t use google then, the customer could say, some guy on a TV/magazine said google was good. This is a technical observation to empower people that don\’t know how to do something, so they can do something. They aren\’t experts and such would/should concider the information to be correct. I wouldn\’t say that either unless a jail cell or massive debt awaited me if I didn\’t but the legal ramafactions later would be very skewed at best.

Its like your doctor tells you to take a pill or you will die, writes you a prescription, but then the pill manufacturer sues you because you did something they want while you were taking their pill. You read the pill liscense didn\’t you? Probably/Hopefully no one will die from not using the internet or a google phone, but it has/is becoming ingrained in our society. It\’s almost becoming like being able to read, what if our 1st grade teachers started sueing us for everything we had done because they taught us to read?

Its on googles servers though. Interception of electronic communications.

Cyanogen should put on his website that no google employees, affliates, constituants, lawyers, friends or users are welcome on his site. Now noone that uses google software can visit his site, so he would no longer be redistributing google software he would be distributing random data to waste space on people phones. Then google lawyers would have to prove that it wasn\’t random and that it was infact google\’s code. Since noone that could use it could use it, it would be just random data. shred --random-source=FILE -x

Sounds like to many Lawyers and not enough programmers to me.

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