GPLv3 No Longer Has Novell Worried About Linux Licensing - InformationWeek

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02:35 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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GPLv3 No Longer Has Novell Worried About Linux Licensing

Who elected Richard Stallman king of the free software world? (Okay, he did.) With the GPLv3 license on the cusp of adoption, the Free Software Foundation president is again hitting the virtual stump to promise that he won't quit revising the license until all software is free, free as in beer. Meanwhile, Novell, which heretofore had been worried about GPLv3, now says on

Who elected Richard Stallman king of the free software world? (Okay, he did.) With the GPLv3 license on the cusp of adoption, the Free Software Foundation president is again hitting the virtual stump to promise that he won't quit revising the license until all software is free, free as in beer. Meanwhile, Novell, which heretofore had been worried about GPLv3, now says on its blog that there's no problem. So which is it?First, some background: GPLv3 is the soon-to-be-approved update to the General Public License, which governs the terms under which most open-source software--like the Linux distros offered by Novell--is distributed.

Microsoft comes into the equation because, last year, it was making noises about "asserting" its patent rights. There was the implicit threat of possible lawsuits against Novell customers. As I explained in a recent post, it matters not a whit whether Microsoft would have a prayer of winning any such suits. The "threat" alone was/is/will cast a pall over the Linux market. That's a tactic SCO tried in 2003, when it sued IBM and Novell. (It worked for SCO, very briefly. After a while, not so much. But I digress.)

One might infer that Microsoft's patent rights were perhaps not as all-encompassing as some of its noises indicated. One could infer that because, last November, Microsoft and Novell signed a deal under which Microsoft agreed not to sue Novell's customers. Novell also got a couple of hundred million bucks from Microsoft, ostensibly so Redmond would have the right to resell Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise server. (Read more about it, here.)

The Free Software Foundation comes into the picture because Stallman's group was royally pissed (am I allowed to write that?) that Novell and Microsoft cut a one-off deal. That is, only Novell's customers received insulation against lawsuits, not the broader, unwashed community of Linux users.

As Novell put it, in a document filed in late May with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: "The FSF criticized our deal with Microsoft because it only provides patent protections for our customers rather than for all licensees of GPL software, and on March 28, 2007, the FSF released a new draft of GPLv3, known as Discussion Draft 3, that includes provisions intended to negate at least part of our Microsoft agreement."

The document also sounded this alarm: "If the Free Software Foundation releases a new version of the GNU General Public License with certain currently proposed terms, our business may suffer harm."

Up To Date

Fast-forward to yesterday. As Paul McDougall reported, the final draft of GPLv3 has been released, and it has what amounts to a Novell-screwing provision. As McDougall reported, the license "states that companies that distribute open-source software cannot extend patent protection to some users of the software and not others, regardless of how or from whom the user received it."

Now here's the confusing part. In contrast to its late-May warning, Novell says that now, it's no longer worried. In a May 31 post on its public relations blog, Novell writes: "The terms of the last call draft suggest that the final version of GPLv3 will not interrupt our partnership with Microsoft."

Furthermore, Novell has made it clear that their position is based on the specific language in the GPLv3 draft. That is, commenting on Stallman or the debate surrounding this issue is meaningless. The license is what determines what will happen, legally speaking, with the software. And, since Novell tells me they're okay with the language in GPLv3, I take them at their word.

So my confusion doesn't involve Novell so much as it does Stallman. In large measure, this is because Stallman doesn't seem like he intends to quit until he has succeeded in throwing a monkey wrench into the Novell-Microsoft deal. On Thursday, the same day Novell put up its no problemo post, the GPLv3 mailing list (an email list providing updates on the licensing process, which anyone can subscribe to) sent out a message containing an essay from Stallman entitled "Why Upgrade to GPL Version 3." (Perhaps Novell hadn't yet seen Stallman's message?)

Far from indicating that GPLv3 is expected to serve as a long-term solution to open-source licensing issues (wasn't that it's purpose), Stallman is threatening to keep at it until he gets exactly what he wants.

Here's the salient language:

"The explicit patent license in GPLv3 does not go as far as we might have liked. Ideally, we would make everyone who redistributes GPL-covered code surrender all software patents, along with everyone who does not redistribute GPL-covered code. Software patents are a vicious and absurd system that puts all software developers in danger of being sued by companies they have never heard of, as well as by all the mega-corporations in the field.

. . .The only way to make software development safe is to abolish software patents, and we aim to achieve this some day.

.. .Change is unlikely to cease once GPLv3 is released. If new threats to users' freedom develop, we will have to develop GPL version 4."

So what gives? True, in his message, Stallman pointed out that any organization which doesn't want to comply with GPLv3 can continue to release software under GPLv2. To this, I would suggest that we already have enough problems with too many versions and variants of open-source software. We don't want licenses to fork the way the Linux distros already have.

But my bigger problem is with Stallman's overall stance. I kind of admire the guy's spunk, and his ability to stick with a position past all point of reasonable compromise. But do we really want one zealot dictating to the entire industry what we can and cannot do?

And why aren't Novell and Microsoft perfectly free to enter into an agreement without a group of Monday morning software quarterbacks trying to queer the deal after the fact with an ill-considered license provision?

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