Busybox replacement project

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Write a non-GPL replacement for Busybox
Tim Bird


Busybox is a widely used program which implements several Linux command line utilities in a single, multi-tool binary. It is provided under the GPL license. Due to its utility and ubiquity, it has been used in a very large number of embedded devices. This includes use by companies who are not as diligent about their GPL commitments as they should be.

Busybox is arguably the most litigated piece of GPL software in the world. Unfortunately, it is unclear what the remedy should be when a GPL violation occurs with busybox. Litigants have sometimes requested remedies outside the scope of busybox itself, such as review authority over unrelated products, or right of refusal over non-busybox modules. This causes concern among chip vendors and suppliers.

The purpose of this project is to produce a program that is as capable and useful as busybox for a large majority of embedded Linux projects, such that busybox is easy to replace in existing products and can be supplanted as the default choice for a multi-tool program in most new projects.

Supported Commands

It is expected that the first major milestone release (version 1.0) of the busybox replacement program will include the following commands: [See the project page.]


The scope of the project is dependent on the target use cases that are envisioned for the replacement tool. Busybox is currently used in a very large number of places, and it is impractical to replace it's full functionality in a short time. However, busybox as it currently stands includes very many non-essential programs and features. The overall goal would be to provide essential busybox functionality (e.g. with that contained in busybox version 1.0).

One additional area of commands which is outside the traditional busybox coverage area, is Android tools provided by toolbox. Toolbox is a non-GPL multi-tool program provided as part of the Android Open Source Project, and used in Android devices. It is limited in functionality, however, compared to busybox, and so many developers install busybox in their Android devices to supplement the command set. Google has a goal of reducing the amount of GPL software in user-space for Android devices. A busybox replacement that implemented the toolbox commands could useful to avoid having Android developer adopt busybox by default. But more importantly, a replacement that just focused on the weaknesses of toolbox could serve this tool supplementation role that busybox fills, with very little effort.

It is expected that it will require about 6 months of part-time developer work to achieve the first major milestone for the project.

This project will very likely start with a base of non-GPL software which is already available, and has been scrutinized to be free from GPL legal encumbrances, from the Toybox project

Project Management

Information about the status and management of this project are at: Busybox replacement

Contractor Candidates

  • Rob Landley
  • Emile “iMil” Heitor (Beastiebox author)

Related work


People interested in supporting this project can do one of several things:

  • If you are an embedded Linux developer, you can start working on the ToyBox code, adding commands or features to it.
  • If you are a company interested in sponsoring or donating engineering resources to this project, please contact Tim Bird. (I used to have my Sony e-mail address here, but it gave people the wrong impression that this was a Sony project. Please use my gmail account: tbird20d (at) gmail dot com.


This project is still Under Construction.

This project is in the proposal and fact-gathering stage, and is still under construction. Please be advised that multiple aspects of this project are still being defined and under consideration. We have not 100% committed to using ToyBox as the replacement, although this seems very likely at this point. If the project proceed, then when it is launched, it will likely be announced with more firm details about the roadmap, governance, license and schedule.


  • Q. Simply providing the source, as the licence requires, would avoid litigation. Isn't that easier than re-writing busybox?
  • A. It is true that providing the source would avoid litigation. In most cases, this *is* easier than re-writing busybox. However, in some cases - especially when dealing with a naive or defunct supplier, it can be difficult or impossible to find the 'correct' source for busybox. It would be better not to get into a situation where the lack of correct source from a 3rd party supplier resulted in extreme remedies being required. This project aims to make a useful alternative to busybox which completely eliminates any possibility of infringement, wrongdoing, and risk of litigation for this particular piece of software.
  • Q. Isn't this a lot of work to avoid a relatively small effort (publishing the source to busybox)?
  • A. It will be some work, but it will likely only have to be done once, and the burden and/or cost of the work can be distributed throughout the industry. The cost to a single company to support this project is very small in comparison to the legal liability and costs should some problem occur with busybox compliance.
  • Q. Is this being done to prevent the SFC from asking for the source to the Linux kernel?
  • A. No, although it would have that effect. As part of their request to remedy a busybox GPL violation, the SFC does ask for source code unrelated to busybox. Personally, I believe this is improper. However, my main reason for proposing this project is to avoid having the SFC gain review authority over unrelated products produced by a company. The larger the set of Linux-based products that are produced by a company, the greater exposure there is for a possible mistake, and the greater potential costs that would incur in the event of litigation and/or settlement.
  • Q. Wouldn't it be morally better to help companies fulfill their GPL obligations, than to have them avoid GPL software?
  • A. There are multiple people who provide consulting services to help people fulfill their GPL obligations. This is a good thing and it should be encouraged. Helping companies avoid infringing the license of software they use is good. Also good is providing software for companies that helps them avoid legal entanglements at all. Arguments beyond this get into BSD vs. GPL license wars, which I don't think are productive to engage in here.
  • Q. Tim Bird, the proposer of this project, works for Sony. Is this a Sony project?
  • A. No. Although Tim is employed by Sony, he spends a portion of his employed time working on behalf of the embedded industry to improve Linux and encourage GPL compliance. As of February 2, 2012, Sony has not endorsed or agreed to support this project. This wiki page is for gathering information and project description information, to present to various companies to solicit support and resources for the project.
  • Q. Can Tim's creation of this proposal be used to infer anything about Sony's compliance record, future compliance intent, or other business practices?
  • A. Tim has only recently informed his management about this proposal, and Sony has not yet (as of 2/2/12) agreed to support it. So, "no, not really". Sony has a good compliance record, and has strong compliance policies in place. Tim is doing this as part of his (paid for by Sony) role in the industry to address issues which inhibit the adoption of Linux in consumer electronics.
  • Q. If it doesn't affect Sony, why are you doing this? How does the busybox litigation and the remedy terms requested by the SFC inhibit the adoption of Linux in consumer electronics?
  • A. It is not expected to affect Sony directly, because Sony has good compliance practices. However, any company can make a mistake. There are instances where this litigation and the terms requested by the SFC have resulted in companies dropping their embedded Linux projects. It has also caused even compliant companies to re-evaluate their adoption of Linux. This has a net negative effect (in my opinion) on the adoption of Linux and ultimate amount of GPL software produced. Tim (and Sony) view the production of GPL software as a good thing. It does sound strange that this is the goal when the proposed project exists to replace a piece of GPL software with a non-GPL piece of software, but the overall desired affect of this project is to encourage more companies to adopt GPL software (particularly the Linux kernel), and to comply with the obligations of the GPL license.

[feel free to add new questions here. The ones above feel a bit 'rigged'.]

additional questions

  • Q. What companies using Busybox did the SFC request unrelated source code from - please clarify unrelated?
  • A. My understanding is that everyone the SFC litigates and eventually settles with is required to pass SFC audits for 3 years. See http://lwn.net/Articles/478337/ I believe that SFC requires auditing of every GPL-based product a company ships, whether or not it had compliance issues.
  • Q. What compliant companies re-evaluated their adoption of Linux, please clarify 're-evaluate`?
  • A. Unfortunately, a lot of the reaction to the lawsuits was discussed in private and with the expectation of confidentiality. I am not at liberty to provide details here from my experience (this is Tim writing.)