Vizio In Hot Water Over Smart TV GPL Violations

As most anyone in this community knows, there’s an excellent chance that any consumer product on the market that’s advertised as “smart” these days probably has some form of Linux running under the hood. We’re also keenly aware that getting companies to hold up their end of the bargain when it comes to using Linux and other GPL licensed software in their products, namely releasing their modified source, isn’t always as cut and dried as it should be.

Occasionally these non-compliant companies will get somebody so aggravated that they actually try to do something about it, which is where smart TV manufacturer Vizio currently finds itself. The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) recently announced they’re taking the Irvine, California based company to court over their repeated failures to meet the requirements of the GPL while developing their Linux-powered SmartCast TV firmware. In addition to the Linux kernel, the SFC also claims Vizio is using modified versions of various other GPL and LGPL protected works, such as U-Boot, bash, gawk, tar, glibc, and ffmpeg.

According to the SFC press release, the group isn’t looking for any monetary damages. They simply want Vizio to do what’s required of them as per the GPL and release the SmartCast source code, which they hope will allow for the development of an OpenWrt-like replacement firmware for older Vizio smart TVs. This is particularly important as older models will often stop receiving updates, and in many cases, will no longer be able to access all of the services they were advertised as being able to support. Clearly the SFC wants this case to be looked at as part of the larger Right to Repair debate, and given the terrible firmware we’ve seen some of these smart TVs ship with, we’re inclined to agree.

Now of course, we’ve seen cases like this pop up in the past. But what makes this one unique is that the SFC isn’t representing one of the developers who’s software has been found to be part of Vizio’s SmartCast, they’re actually the plaintiff. By taking the position of a consumer who has purchased a Vizio product that included GPL software, the SFC is considered a third-party beneficiary, and they are merely asking the court to be given what’s due to them under the terms of the license.

As firm believers in the open source movement, we have zero tolerance for license violators. Vizio isn’t some wide-eyed teen, randomly copying code they found from GitHub without understanding the implications. This is a multi-billion dollar company that absolutely should know better, and we’ll be happy to see them twist in the wind a bit before they’re ultimately forced to play by the rules.

69 thoughts on “Vizio In Hot Water Over Smart TV GPL Violations

    1. MicroSoft comes to mind. Steal now,.delay & obfusticate. Kill competition. Then say, ok ok, sorry, (ha!!!) What’s the fine? Royalties??? To whom??? They folded a few years ago.

      I used to look forward to smart things. It’s been so corporately twisted that I’ll buy none. Visio is now added to my short list to boycott, not that I’d know what they sell that I’d dare buy. I don’t watch tv. Bit of a.hassle to open a new set to cut a mic wire. Taping over the camera, not so hard. Mics should have a “physical* on/off sw.

      1. there’s already precedent as mentioned in the article. What’s novel about this suit is that rather than the rights holder suing for license compliance, the consumer is. It’s a *fantastic* approach, and the important outcome aside from actual code release will be the recognition of consumer standing.

  1. An Open Source OS replacement for old smart TVs would be pretty cool.

    I think I would prefer to just see smart TVs no longer be made, but open source replacement software would be the next best thing to that.

    It’s not that I don’t want the functionality of a smart TV. I just don’t want it built in.

    Ideally I would rather see all the smarts in a tiny, replaceable dongle that plugs into both an HDMI port and a USB port on the TV for signal and power. And open source code for that!

    “Brain” upgrades come out way to fast and even with open software the CPU, memory or some other spec will probably start to get in the way of keeping it up to date. And there is just too much energy and resources that go into making those big livingroom sized displays to throw them in a landfill or some third world ditch where it is supposedly “recycled” every time the brains get too old.

    The life of a TV should be measured in decades not years. This throwaway society really sucks!

    1. Personally, I have a pretty low opinion of smart TVs myself. I’d much rather get a basic TV and use some Android HDMI stick, or even a Chromecast, than be stuck with whatever kludge of a firmware the manufacturer thought up for that particular year.

        1. You will have to look at an entry level commercial unit if you want to get a “Dumb” display that still has good image performance. Sharp-NEC (They merged their commercial lines at the beginning of 2021) and Samsung both have management and Digital signage OS loaded on their higher end commercial units. All LG units run WebOS (Palm). The rebadged units from various MFG and Distribution channels offer varying levels of intelligence. With work we use the ADI house brand frequently as it is the base LG IPS in that size class with just an input board; IR control only and most don’t include a tuner board.

          It should be noted that Sharp-NEC do offer an integrated Raspberry PI Compute module connector as an alternate to the OPS slot on many of their models.

      1. I do a lot of repairs on junked TVs and have had to stop for a while because nobody wants to buy them. They always want Smart TVs with the largest (55″+) screens. Even after telling them that they don’t need a huge TV for their bedroom, they still insist that they “have to have” it. After telling them, “This Smart TV is $150 and the last update was 3 years ago. I also have a regular TV of the same size I can sell for $90. Buy a Roku or FireStick for $30 and you’ll have more functionality,” I typically get a response of, “I’ll take the Smart TV. I don’t want to mess with an extra remote.” Sad and humorous at the same time.

      2. That’s what I did. I was using my LG DVD player “Smart” options but an update killed it. Pretty crappy way to treat a customer. Brick an appliance. Great way to lose a customer too.

      1. Life span of any LCD product is measured in time and brightness. Yes, I have several LCD screens ( not necessarily TV screens) that are 8, 10, 15 and even 20 years old. But the 20 year old screen isn’t capable of producing the same illumination as the 10 yo and the 10 yo is no where near as bright as the new one.

        The question becomes when does the image become so dim that it isn’t enjoyable to watch, which is a combination of age and running hours.

    2. Yeah, planned obsolescence started in the 70’s and is just absolutely all about corporate GREED. Companies that design and build this SHIT should be fined HEAVILY and with today’s technology, it’s so easy to track and document repetitive and common failures. Proving intended design ‘flaws’. CPSC should stand for Consumer Product Service Council or Commission, also !!!

        1. It’s also when Japanese manufacturing started producing bearings so good it was realistic to make them sealed with “lifetime” lubrication.
          There are a couple of things going on here. Better manufacturing, economic pressure to make cheaper cars meaning few or no provisions for repair/maintenance, and increasing awareness that replacement modules could be very profitable.
          I own a car where “take the wheel off, disassemble the bearings, regrease” is in the repair manual for routine maintenance every 40,000 miles. I also own a car where the bearings are sealed (meaning no grit gets in there so it barely wears) and pressed in and based on the preivous one I owned, will last 200,000 miles at which point routine wear items (shocks, clutch plate, interior upholstery, all the suspension bushings, the catalytic converter) will all have failed and it’ll cost less to buy a new used car than to replace all of them, so at that point unless you really care about repair it’s not economically sensible to provide an easy way to regrease bearings.

          also wowie is it frustrating that british used 1/4-26 straight thread grease nipples while americans used 1/4-27 tapered thread grease nipples.

        2. My 2009 Honda Fit is the first car I’ve had that I know doesn’t have grease fittings. I’m not sure about the 01 Chevy Prizm and 01 Hundai Accent which I never checked.

          My 01 Jeep Cherokee, 88 Chevy Cheyenne and 84 Chevy Caprice all had them.

          Yes, I drive older, not so impressive cars and yes I could buy nice new ones but it’s a pretty dumb investment given that they loose so much value soon after you drive them off the lot and also given the corrosive salt. A sports car might be fun but you know.. speeding tickets. I’d rather keep the money and some day retire.

    3. Bought my Visio smart TV this year. Got it to work on antennae TV one time. It still won’t work. I would buy an old TV with no remote control and a black and white picture if I could. It was much better than the junk they make now. You shoulden have to rescan the channels every time you want to watch TV.

    4. Honestly, “brain” upgrades aren’t the real issue.

      It’s the fact that Vizio / Sony prioritizes ads and tracking over the user experience.

      The smart cast app USED to be snappy and fast. I also keep getting full banner ads, app type rearranging randomly and can’t change the apps opened from my remote buttons.

      I simply want it open source, so I can remove all the ads and have a very slim and fast interface with only the apps I want.

      That’s it.

      That’s the issue here. Sure, the older devices before 4k was so huge is an issue (without native 4k support, it takes 16x the processing power to handle).

      My Nexus 7 tablet from 2013 has a slower CPU than my tv and runs an entire Android os — my television shouldn’t be struggling to show a handful of tiles and a few ads.

    5. I second EVERYTHING “Twisty Plastic” says!! Change your frame of mind, world! Stop using things for such a short time! Upgrade them, repurpose them, make a damn mosaic out of them! We Must stop this senseless contaminating and polluting!!!

  2. As a AV Integration Professional I don’t know why TV manufacturers want to make smart TVs. Know how many times I have wall mounted brand new TVs and end up hooking up a Roku or Apple TV to it? Too many to count. TV manufacturers probably just do it for collecting analytics off of users.

    I’ve seen tons of products that slap on Open Source or GPL and don’t share their code or schematics and when you ask they feed you crap like “security reasons” or “FCC regulations”.

    1. I think the reason why manufacturers want to is obvious, it’s so they can get revenue from advertisements and selling your viewing data instead of letting Roku/Nvidia/Apple/etc benefit from the tv manufacturer’s “platform”.

    2. My two tv sets use Linux, and aren’t smart. I’m pretty sure the DVD recorder I pulled out of a recycling bin in 2009 used Linux. At least one GPS, maybe both, use Linux.be

      My blu-ray player uses Linux, but is “smart” orwas, since I doubt the appsstill work.

      So they choose Linux for some other reason.

    3. Vizio in particular is famous for being the cheapest brand because they mercilessly sell as much information about you, your viewing habits, and anything else they can derive to sell to advertisers:

      One of the initial stories on the subject – https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/11/own-a-vizio-smart-tv-its-watching-you/

      A follow up where it turns out that the method for sending advertisers data wasn’t secure, and was sent even if you opted out – https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/11/man-in-the-middle-attack-on-vizio-tvs-coughs-up-owners-viewing-habits/

      They were sued (and eventually lost) – https://www.consumerreports.org/lcd-led-oled-tvs/vizio-sued-for-smart-tv-data-sharing/

      In a similar story, Samsung warned customers not to speak personal/private information in front of their TVs because the “voice assistant” data was sent to a third party – https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31296188

      But more directly – Samsung monitors what content you watch, and sells ad space in the menus on your TV – https://www.theregister.com/2020/09/30/samsung_smart_tv_ads/

    4. It’s simple.

      1) Sell a TV with somewhat useful functions on hardware barely able to support it

      2) Cripple the TV with firmware upgrades and blame the streaming services for requiring security upgrades that the hardware can’t support

      3) Sell a new TV

      4) Repeat

    5. The consumer has spoken … “Give me a million dollars worth of features, but I don’t want it to cost more than $200”

      If you dig around online, you will find materials that suggests most smart TVs have less than a 10% margin on them and that the manufacturers are making their profits by a) sell access to the app makers ( think M$ bloatware ) and b) collecting and selling data on viewing/usage habits.

  3. I have a non-smart Vizio, and a non-smart Skyworth.
    I have no need for all that felgercarb.
    I just want to watch the local news and weather.
    Why would a TV need to boot up or have an operating syseem and firmware?
    Maybe it’s just me but simple is better?

    1. Your setup is more complex than mine. I just plug the Ethernet into the tv and I can get Netflix, Hulu, paramount, Disney, whatever. No external boxes necessary. Yeah I can also plug in an antenna. It’s an Android device so its Google code and it gets software updates.

      1. Your setup is more complex than mine, I just look out the window, no ethernet, no power necessary.

        Maybe it’s just me but perhaps there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of modern technology and simpler isn’t actually always better.

      2. I bought a 4 year old “smart”-TV as “broken, as is” – it had a black screen. I was prepared to replace the backlights in it, while it showed that it failed because of all the “smarts” couldn’t call home anymore so it locked up the TV. After a reflash of the software and not allowing the TV to go online, it worked perfectly. Not a single app or the OS was functional after 4 years because they shut down the servers. Good job Google/Philips.

    2. my modern non-smart lcd tv takes 14 seconds to turn on. i understand it needs to “boot up”, but 14 seconds is incredible. and that’s from the lightest sleep mode it has that has the backlight off. i really thought one of the advantages of finally retiring my CRT 2 years ago was that it would turn on faster. but the CRT displays image (very dimly) almost instantly, and by 14 seconds it’s up to full brightness. crazy that toshiba didn’t bother to do better.

      1. My modern smart tv fires up instantly when you push the power button, it is fully booted up and accepting input from the remote as soon as the screen image is visible. It’s just like waking up a phone or a laptop.

      2. Toshiba and some other companies such as Sharp do not actually make their own TVs anymore. They’re probably made by the same manufacturer that makes Hisense, Scepter, Insignia, Element or Onn.

        1. There are only 4 LCD Glass manufactures. Sharp-NEC, Samsung, and LG make all of the commercial and High-end glass. The fourth does ALL of the budget brands (low-end Sharp consumer-separate from Sharp-NEC, Vizio, Hisense, Scepter, Insignia, Element, GE. RCA, Onn, etc.)

    3. I have a 32″ 1080i dumb Samsung LCD TV that’s lasted me more than a decade at this point and it still works. I have a Topfield PVR connected to it for watching and recording OTA TV (none of which is broadcast in Australia in any resolution higher than 1080i so the TV is fine for that). And I have a desktop PC with a nice LCD monitor that I use for any other content (YouTube, Netflix etc)

      I have no wish to own a smart TV or any other viewing device that takes control away from me the user.

      1. It sounds like your gear has taken away your ability to choose which screen you use,, can’t watch Netflix on the Samsung, can’t watch TV on your computer. How does it feel to be controlled by your gear?

    1. The GPL is a legally binding document, as has been demonstrated in a number of previous cases. The Linksys case is probably the most direct comparison, which is why they bring it up, but there are others such as FSF vs Cisco. There’s really no gray area here, though I’d expect Vizio to take the same out that previous companies have, and reach a settlement before it goes to court and they have to deal with the PR damage of losing a public case.

      Historically, that means a cash settlement, which is probably one of the reasons the SFC has taken this on. It’s also not outside the realm of possibility that this situation leads to Vizio rewriting SmartCast entirely, which again, would echo the Linksys case. After it was clear that Linksys was shipping firmware that violated the GPL, they stopped using Linux so they wouldn’t have a FOSS license over their head.

      Until reading this, I had just assumed Vizio was a Chinese company and nothing would come of this. But if they’re in the US, they are definitely on the hook.

  4. Not trying to be political, but found it coincidental.

    This is the story I saw right after I read this one, it’s not about TV’s but open-source…..”Trump social network given 30 days to stop breaking software license”.
    The site is being built with the open-source software Mastodon.
    But haven’t released the source code .

  5. I bought my TV from a company that manufactures advertisement panels, Swedx. It’s over 10 years old now.
    It’s connected to my PC etc via an AVR. Anything I want to watch gets played on the computer.

  6. GPL v3 is a nightmare in industry, this was perhaps some oversight, but is to late, due to GPL v3 they should make public entire firmware with instruction how to build and launch binaries on Vizio TV. But what about glibc, is LGPL?

    1. That was the whole point.

      You bought it, you can run what you want on it.

      Yep, that’s a nightmare to an industry that makes their money by obsoleting their own product so that it and all the resources and energy that went into making it regularly end up in a landfill and the consumer shells out more money to buy another like clockwork.

      I don’t see how that industry’s nightmare is a bad thing.

      1. Just because the source code is available doesn’t give industry an automatic right to it – either they can comply with the license, or they can damn well pay to write all the code themselves.

        1. sure, that’s why we have multiple types of sw licence, and without proper let’s say “gate keeper” to check which kind of components are in the final release is almost impossible to avoid this situation. I am 100% sure that they not need full bash, and busybox is good enough for their purpose :)

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