One of the key strengths of the Linux kernel is that it is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), an open source license which gives everyone the right to use and even modify the Linux kernel, with the condition that the source code is made available for any publicly released versions.
Since Android uses the Linux kernel, the GPL license also applies to the versions of Android which are released by OEMs and processor manufacturers. When an OEM or chip maker releases a version of Android which supports their products, they should, according to the GPL, also freely release the source code.
Unfortunately, from time to time, there are companies which don’t release the source code. They seem to have a mentality that their modifications to the source code are proprietary, which they aren’t, and although the Android source code was supplied to them for free, they don’t think they are obliged to give anything back, which actually they are. The GPL basically works on the basis that freely we have received and freely we should give. Without a version of Android for their processor, it is unlikely that they would sell very many units.
MediaTek withholds code for Omate smartwatch
There a millions of devices in the world today which run Linux (with or without Android) and, for the most part, the designers of these products have also released the relevant source code. One new device which is getting a lot of attention is the upcoming Omate TrueSmart, a smart watch which raised over $1 million in funding from Kickstarter.
The device uses a dual-core MediaTek MT6572 and this is where the trouble starts. A campaign has started on the Internet asking MediaTek to release the source code for the Linux kernel which is used on the Omate.
It appears that Omate doesn’t have an official partner level agreement with MediaTek, and so it is only receiving pre-compiled binaries for the MT6572. Normally, a chip maker would publish the source code, and any OEM needing access to it would just download the source archive from the Internet.
MediaTek's attempt to sublicense GPL code actually automatically terminates its right to use the Linux kernel.
The campaign asking MediaTek to release the source code also alleges that MediaTek is trying to re-license GPL code and is asking its partners to pay a fee and sign an agreement before it will release the source code. An attempt from MediaTek to to sublicense GPL code would automatically terminate its right to use the Linux kernel.
Since MediaTek is a Taiwanese company, it’s probably quite hard for any legal action originating in the West to force the chip maker to publish the source code. But maybe the company will capitulate under consumer pressure?