GPLv3 touted as foil to Microsoft-Novell deal

Microvell will spark renewed interest in the new GPL version, says Neil McAllister

Let the spin control begin. In an open letter issued recently, Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian attempted to distance his company from Microsoft’s claims that open source software, including the Linux kernel, infringes on Microsoft intellectual property.

“We disagree with the recent statements made by Microsoft on the topic of Linux and patents,” the letter reads. “Importantly, our agreement with Microsoft is in no way an acknowledgment that Linux infringes upon any Microsoft intellectual property.”

Unfortunately, the die may already be cast. Some experts feel the GPL (Gnu General Public Licence) is already explicit on the subject of intellectual property restrictions, but a growing number of open source developers are now considering even stricter licensing as a means to forestall any future deals like the Microsoft-Novell pact.

In its unsigned response to Hovsepian’s letter, Microsoft states, “We at Microsoft respect Novell’s point of view on the patent issue, even while we respectfully take a different view.” Could it be that Novell was tricked by Microsoft into accepting a deal it didn’t fully understand?

I asked open source guru Bruce Perens what he thought of the apparent conflict between the two companies. “This just doesn’t sound sincere to me,” Perens says, echoing the sentiments of InfoWorld readers who suggested, less politely, that those who lie down with dogs get up with fleas. “Let’s face it: [Novell] took one third of a billion dollars, over time. And they will, as part of that deal, take whatever Microsoft has to say and spin it the way they want to spin it.”

Whatever the fallout of the deal may be among the open source community, Perens predicts that it will ultimately be short-lived. “I think there’s going to be one very strong outcome from the whole Microsoft-Novell deal,” he says. “GPLv3 has become much more attractive than it was previously.”

The third generation of the GPL, currently in discussion at the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and due to be finalised soon, includes new language that specifically forbids companies that distribute free software from asserting software patent claims against users of that software. According to lawyer Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Centre, the Microsoft-Novell pact “would not clear GPLv3 by a millimeter”.

Luckily for Novell, developers have so far been slow to get behind GPLv3. Most notoriously, Linus Torvalds has stated that the Linux kernel will not use the new licence when it appears. He fears that GPLv3’s strongly worded anti-intellectual property language, including its restrictions on DRM (digital rights management) technologies, might alienate commercial businesses that contribute to the kernel.

Other developers are far less reluctant to get behind v3, however. Perens suspects that even the kernel developers may now have a change of heart. And although the kernel is the innermost engine that makes an OS run, a typical Linux distribution includes thousands of components in addition to the kernel itself. Many of these projects are maintained by the FSF. If enough of them switch to the new licence, it would become virtually impossible for Novell to maintain the Suse Linux distribution in its current form and still comply with the terms of its agreement with Microsoft.

“I think that the main problem is that [Novell’s] business is failing as a Linux distribution,” Perens says. “And unfortunately, on the way down people tend to spar around a lot and hurt their friends.

“The whole point of [the GPL] was that we all hang together or we will surely hang separately. Novell, by going into this patent deal, is not hanging together with the rest of the community, and that’s what all the developers are upset about.”

Perens says he has a message for Novell. “Just get Microsoft to drop the patent deal and we’ll stand behind the rest.”

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