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How I watched a Motion for Summary Judgment hearing

by Denver Gingerich on October 12, 2023

In SFC's ongoing lawsuit against Vizio asking to receive the source code for the copylefted components on their TVs, last week we had a hearing with the judge to discuss the Motion for Summary Judgment that Vizio filed (requesting that the court reject our case before it even went to trial). A couple of our staff attended in-person (in an Orange County courthouse in Southern California) while others, like myself, watched remotely.

I was hoping to be able to use a standard interface to view the proceedings (such as streaming video provided to a <video/> element on a webpage), but unfortunately that was not available. The only way to view hearings in this court remotely is via Zoom, which SFC has talked about recently. This presented me with a conundrum - do I join via Zoom to see what was said? Or am I prevented from accessing this civic discourse because the court chooses not to use a standard video sharing method, preventing a large segment of society from taking part? As part of their normal practice, the court does not record (nor allow recording except through an official court reporter that can be hired by the parties to take a textual transcript) of proceedings, so I needed to decide with some urgency how to proceed, as failing to join now would mean I couldn't see the hearing at all, neither now nor in the future.

I am not sure how other countries approach this problem, and maybe it is no different elsewhere, but it did concern me deeply how this technical decision to demand the use of proprietary software could leave so many people disenfranchised, both with respect to their legal system, and other public services as well.

As part of SFC's policy to allow the use proprietary software if it is critical to our mission, I decided that it was more important for me to be able to view the proceedings (and avoid charging many hundreds of dollars to SFC for an international flight and hotel). Note that SFC would never require this of me, and would gladly pay for me to attend in-person to avoid the proprietary software, but I felt personally it was the right decision for me to make in this context.

Once this dilemma was resolved (for better or worse), I went through the technical steps required to join the Zoom call for the court hearing, where I was presented with this text:
By clicking "Join", you agree to our {0} and {1}.

Now there were no links to {0} or {1}, so I made some guesses as to what I was agreeing to. In the best case, I was agreeing to nothing, and in the worst case I was agreeing that 0 and 1 provided the foundation for all humanity which, while potentially troubling, did have a certain appeal as a technologist. In any case, I clicked Join (possibly leaving an indelible mark on the future of the universe) and was at last able to observe the hearing, after dialing in by (SIP) phone for the audio, to reduce the amount of proprietary code being run for me to view the hearing. The hearing event itself was familiar to those who have attended such court proceedings - there were many other cases heard that day, that touched on issues such as whether you could get a DUI while riding a horse (answer: yes), to much more serious and unfortunate clear instances of tactics in domestic disputes (which we hope will not ultimately sway the judge). It appeared the judge wanted to save our hearing for last, possibly due to its complexity or novelty. The lawyers in most of the other matters appeared remotely. Once the other cases were heard, the judge turned to us, with both our lawyers and Vizio's lawyer physically present in the courtroom. She asked Vizio to go first (since it was Vizio's motion), and their lawyer went over the points from their Motion for Summary Judgment, eventually clarifying seven specific objections Vizio had made to our case in its motion - the judge had clearly read our brief and wanted to know more on these seven topics given how we addressed them. It was a bit jarring to hear my own name mentioned in court, as one of the objections was to an email I had sent to Vizio when we informed them they were violating the GPL. While not a problem for our case, it reminded me of the need to be extra careful, since anything we say to a company who violates the GPL can end up in court. But it also reminded me of why it is important we do this: if people feel scared to file lawsuits when companies fail to comply with the software freedom licenses they choose to use, then we at SFC must step up and use our resources and substantial experience to make sure the unfounded claims by companies of how they should be able to get away with violating are firmly rebuffed. After Vizio's lawyer had finished, the judge turned to our lawyers for a response. Our lawyers presented an excellent litany of reasons why SFC's case is not preempted by copyright (for example, there is an extra element, provision of source code, that copyright remedies do not provide), and why we have rights as a third-party to the GPL contract between Vizio and the developers of the software that Vizio chose to use (as an example, the GPL itself clearly states, "You [Vizio] must make sure that they [third-party recipients such as SFC], too, receive or can get the source code"). Our lawyers finished with some examples of how contract law works, where if you agree to make some copies, but don't pay the money required in the contract, then that's a contract claim, not a copyright claim. In that case, a party has stiffed the beneficiary on the money. And in our case, as our lawyer so eloquently ended the hearing: "Vizio has stiffed us on the code". We are extremely proud of our lawyers in this case, especially the two lawyers who argued in-person for us on Thursday: Naomi Jane Gray and Don Thompson, as well our General Counsel Rick Sanders. Whether companies are held accountable for following the software right to repair licenses they choose to use is immensely important - they need to give us the same rights they have, and we're incredibly happy that our legal team are so laser-focused on this.

We look forward to hearing the judge's decision on this motion when it comes out (in the meantime, you can read the hearing transcript if you like). Whatever the result, we will keep fighting for your software rights, everywhere software is used, using the legal mechanisms available (when required), to make sure everyone can control their technology.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, law, licensing

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