Tuesday, November 07, 2006

CBR speaks of doom and gloom for Linux...

The headline sounded fair enough:

"Microsoft-Novell peace deal could create two-tier Linux market"

That's true, of course, it *could* do that. I was hoping for a reasoned explanation of how it might, as well, but that seemed to be missing from the article. If you aren't someone who follows the news about Linux and "intellectual property" issues (copyright, patent, etc), reading the article would probably give you the impression that Microsoft has made it known that it has patents that make it illegal for anyone running anything other than SUSE Linux to use their computers.

From the article, we hear the following from Steve Ballmer of Microsoft:

"This does not apply to any forms of Linux other than Novell's SUSE Linux. And if people want to have peace and interoperability, they'll look at Novell's SUSE Linux. If they make other choices, they have all of the compliance and intellectual property issues that are associated with that."

The implication, of course, is that there are numerous and sundry problems related to copyright and/or patent infringement in Linux. The implication raises a number of interesting questions (and has an oh-so-charming resemblance to certain implications against Linux bandied about by another company whose initials rhyme with "SCO").

One has to wonder a few things:

  • What exactly is alleged to be infringing?

  • How widespread is the alleged infringement?

  • When was the alleged infringement discovered?

  • What steps have been taken to protect the copyrights and/or patents from the alleged infringement?

  • Does Novell have a right to distribute code under the GPL if persons that recieve the code cannot distribute it under the terms of the GPL?

Aside from that last question (which is important, and gets a very short mention at the end of the CBR Online article), you might find a common thread. So far as I am aware, Microsoft has not publicly stated any specifics to patents or copyrighted material that is infringed, and Novell hasn't either. I, for one, am extremely curious as to what Novell believes it is protecting its customers from.

I imagine Novell's prospective customers will be curious as well. If some company needs to choose a Linux distribution, and Novell mentions their patent covenant with Microsoft as an advantage, then I would imagine that a discussion of what (specifically) is being offered would be in order.

Here's a hypothetical situation for you. Suppose that Novell and Microsoft enter into an agreement wherein Microsoft says "hey, do a cross-licensing deal with us...well, more like a patent covenant, but we'll throw some business at you when people want Linux and you can make sure you have a version that somehow works better than others with Microsoft software (wink, wink) and we'll threaten to sue anybody that uses any other distribution...what do you say?". Suppose that Novell replies "Hmm...not much downside. We don't have to sue anybody, we get to be an important OS vendor again, and we get lock-in? Let's do the deal."

Of course, that hypothetical situation may well be far removed from reality, but then again, it might not. Regardless, after a hypothetical situation like that, we must consider a real concern that was raised (but not given much attention in the article). CBR Online reported the following:

"...the Free Software Foundation's general counsel, Eben Moglen, has reportedly stated that it could therefore be a violation of the GNU General Public License.

While admitting that he was yet to see the terms of the agreement, Moglen postulated that it could fall foul of section seven of the GPL, which requires distributors to pass on the right to distribute software without additional permission."

Section 7 of the GPLv2 says exactly this:

"If, as a consequence of a court judgment or allegation of patent infringement or for any other reason (not limited to patent issues), conditions are imposed on you (whether by court order, agreement or otherwise) that contradict the conditions of this License, they do not excuse you from the conditions of this License. If you cannot distribute so as to satisfy simultaneously your obligations under this License and any other pertinent obligations, then as a consequence you may not distribute the Program at all. For example, if a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Program by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the Program.

If any portion of this section is held invalid or unenforceable under any particular circumstance, the balance of the section is intended to apply and the section as a whole is intended to apply in other circumstances.

It is not the purpose of this section to induce you to infringe any patents or other property right claims or to contest validity of any such claims; this section has the sole purpose of protecting the integrity of the free software distribution system, which is implemented by public license practices. Many people have made generous contributions to the wide range of software distributed through that system in reliance on consistent application of that system; it is up to the author/donor to decide if he or she is willing to distribute software through any other system and a licensee cannot impose that choice.

This section is intended to make thoroughly clear what is believed to be a consequence of the rest of this License."

That first paragraph is important, I think, in this deal for Novell. I'm not sure if they fully understand the implications of what it says. I *am* fairly sure that Microsoft understands it, since they managed to insulate themselves nicely from having to deal with it...they are not, after all, creating their own Linux distribution (which they could very well have done, as long as they complied with the terms of the GPL).

What I suspect is afoot here is some maneuvering by Microsoft to turn Novell (who is a company with a very successful Linux Distribution) against the rest of the Linux community and sow a bumper crop of FUD around Linux itself. If SUSE remains successful, Microsoft gets to watch a proprietary Linux rise. If SUSE tanks, Microsoft has left open its litigation path (assuming it has something to actually litigate).

Microsoft doesn't need to work with Novell on Linux/Windows interoperability. The code is right out there for anyone to see, on the Linux side, and has been for a decade and a half. Microsoft has its own developers that I'm sure are capable of looking at assembly code and C and APIs and figuring out how to interoperate with them. There's the WINE project that has made great strides in getting Windows apps to run on Linux, and SAMBA that has tried hard to make heterogeneous Linux/Windows networks a reality. So, If Microsoft doesn't *need* to work with Novell and enter into a patent covenant, one is left to wonder...what exactly are they *really* trying to do.

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