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27 February 2012, 22:20

WURFL: a cautionary tale

by Glyn Moody

At the beginning of this year a DMCA takedown notice was used against the open source project OpenDDR. Glyn Moody looks at the background to this story and the issues that it raises.

A few months ago, I wrote about the library management program Koha, and how the irruption of money into the previously tranquil world of open source led to some painful arguments. Sadly, that's not a unique example, as the recent case of WURFL demonstrates.

Here's how the project is described on its Sourceforge page:

WURFL is a Device Description Repository (DDR), i.e. a software component which contains the descriptions of thousands of mobile devices. In its simplest incarnation, WURFL is an XML configuration file plus a set of programming APIs to access the data in real-time environments.

The main scope of the WURFL Project is to be an independent central repository of device information, which Open-Source developers from around the globe can utilize to build their mobile web applications.

On 6 June, 2011, the ScientiaMobile company was announced:

The point of the new company is easily explained: as WURFL gains popularity and more and more companies are requesting professional support, there was no way this could be achieved while we were developing and supporting WURFL as a side activity to our regular jobs. ScientiaMobile is the roof under which Luca and Steve are bringing 100% of the WURFL intellectual property and fire power.

At the same time, the licence for the implementations of the APIs was switched from GNU GPL to Affero GPL (AGPL). A few months later, the licence for the associated DDR listing was also changed:

The WURFL file is the Copyright of ScientiaMobile. Permission is granted to use one copy of the WURFL file only under the circumstances and conditions specified here below. All rights are otherwise reserved.

You are authorized to use the WURFL file AS IS, without modification and solely in connection with one of the standard WURFL APIs, starting from version 1.3, released and supported by ScientiaMobile and available at the official WURFL website at

You are not authorized to create a derivative work of or otherwise modify this WURFL file, and you are further not authorized to use, copy, display, or distribute, in each case, any derivative work of this WURFL file, whether created by you or someone else.

This contrasted with the previous licensing, which ScientiaMobile itself described as "very liberal" (see below for details.)

Because of this newly-restrictive licence, some open source coders decided to do what many have done in similar circumstances: they forked, setting up the OpenDDR project, with the following licences:

OpenDDR is released under Open Database License (ODbL), and OpenDDR Simple APIs are released under Lesser General Public License (LGPL). This means that you are completely free to use both OpenDDR repository and/or APIs in open source or proprietary software.

So far, so conventional. But on 3 January of this year, something dramatic happened: OpenDDR's host, GitHub, received a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice:

By this letter I hereby request that you remove from your website - - material that infringes my client's copyrighted work. My client, ScientiaMobile, lnc., is the owner by assignment of the copyright in a work known as WURFL.xml. A project recently added to your Website by a group named OpenDDR-org infringes WURFL.xml as substantial elements of it are copied from WURLF.xml.

Normally, DMCA takedowns are directed at sites holding alleged unauthorised copies of music and films. The way they work is slightly strange: no proof is required that the files are unauthorised – an oath "under penalty of perjury" that they are is enough to force hosting companies to remove that content if they wish to be immune from subsequent prosecution.

As the OpenDDR team wrote:

GitHub, according to DMCA act, was obliged to accomplish the request, without any evaluation of the correctness of the request. The only way to block a DMCA would be for OpenDDR people to pay an attorney officer to manage the litigation. We choose a more open (and less expensive) option: publish this story to clarify and to give Scientiamobile the opportunity to publicly remedy the mistake made in requesting the removal of OpenDDR-Resources repository.

Next: Key issues raised

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