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Stormy weather hits Microsoft/Novell parade

According to various press reports, the much-touted agreement between Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc. has already hit hard times, at least in the realm of patent protection.

The New York Times reports that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has insinuated that there may be Microsoft intellectual property buried in the Linux kernel (though a Microsoft executive we spoke with declined to specify what the offending code was, exactly).

The implication for government Linux users is that they may be held legally liable for this infringement, though Ballmer has not yet come out and said as much.

Others though, see this veiled threat as simple fear-mongering. Novell chief executive Ron Hovsepian quickly responded in an open letter that his company's agreement "with Microsoft is in no way an acknowledgment that Linux infringes upon any Microsoft intellectual property."

Officials at Red Hat Inc., also concurred. They have said that the company would not sign a similar deal with Microsoft, inferring that such a deal would be unnecessary as no such patent-infringing technology actually resides in Linux.

Shortly after the initial announcement, many in the open source community criticized the deal, noting the not-to-sue provision is limited to only customers of Novell's, not to users of open source products from other vendors. "So that tells the discerning observer that Microsoft will likely be suing others," a post in Pamela Jones' Groklaw Web site speculated.

The development team behind Samba (a program that allows Linux computers to connect to and be seen by Windows workgroups) also came out against the agreement for this reason.

"The patent agreement struck between Novell and Microsoft is a divisive agreement. It deals with users and creators of free software differently depending on their 'commercial' versus 'non-commercial' status, and deals with them differently depending on whether they obtained their free software directly from Novell or from someone else," the team wrote on the Web site.

Eben Moglen, the attorney for the Free Software Foundation, has noted that such a partnership may come in conflict with the General Public License which Linux is licensed under.

Section 7 of the GPL states, "If a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the [p]rogram 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." Could this apply to the Microsoft-Novell deal?

Moglen also said the FSF is working on a provision in the new version of the GPL that would bar exclusive pacts like the one between Microsoft and Novell. The proposed wording stipulates that any indemnification must cover all copies of the software, not just one vendor's version of the program. Linux head Linus Torvalds has said that he plans to stick with version 2 of the GPL, though.

Of course, none of this commotion should affect the work the two companies will do on improving interoperability between Microsoft Windows and Linux. But these days interoperability means more than just technical interoperability--it means corporate interoperability as well. Evidently, that flavor of interoperability may not be as easy to come by.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Nov 22, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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