Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Big news in the open source community as longtime foe of Open Source[tm] Microsoft signs an agreement with Linux provider Novell. Groklaw is blogging hard, naturally. No doubt my understanding will change considerably after reading through all the detail there, but for now...

The deal involved Novell paying Microsoft a total $40 million over 5 years "from revenues obtained through selling products containing Microsoft patents."(see this ITwire articl, among many others). My thought at the time was that this move should be read not so much as "Novell is free from threats of patent lawsuits from Microsoft" as it should be read as "Microsoft is about to start threatening linux companies that aren't Novell with patent lawsuits".

Steve Ballmer has now strongly implied that this is the case by bluntly claiming that Linux "uses our[Microsoft's] patented intellectual property" (see this Seattle Intelligencer blogpost), and claiming that Linux distributors owe Microsoft compensation for it.

The reaction from the open source community is similar to what happened when SCO tried to claim the Linux kernel contained copyrighted code that SCO owned and hadn't licensed under the GPL:"If Linux violates Microsoft’s patents, let’s see the proof".

Weeell....there's no certainty that Ballmer is referring only to the Linux kernel. It's easy to forget that "Linux" can refer both to the OS kernel and to the OS itself (Richard Stallman's probably futile effort to have the OS proper referred to as "GNU/Linux" instead of "Linux" notwithstanding). So the vague allegation is even vaguer than it first appears. Where could these alleged infringements be? The kernel? Glibc? Somewhere in Openoffice.org? Hiding in the multifunctionality of the grep command?

Software patents are becoming something of a headache in the US. It's possible that any number of large-scale software projects contain any number of patent violations owing to the sheer number of software patents floating around. It's entirely possible that the many components of your typical GNU/Linux system may have a few inadvertent patent violations in there.

IT companies usually manage to avoid patent lawsuits by acquiring software patents of their own which they can use as a deterrent: "you sue us, we see you", a sort of Mutually Assured Destruction policy. It's worth noting here that the Microsoft-Novell patent deal was reciprocal: Microsoft is safe from any fear of infringing on Novell's patents now. It is not clear to me how that works (or doesn't work) when a software system is designed and maintained not by a single limited liability company, but by an amorphous mass of volunteer coders.

Can open source software manage to deal with patents? Software licensed under the Gnu General Public License (which includes most components of most GNU/Linux distributions) has a fairly straightforward restriction laid out by Section 7 of that license: "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."

So, if Novell paid Microsoft $40 million for the use of Microsoft's patents which allegedly exist in GNU/Linux, and that money will be coming from "revenues obtained through selling products containing Microsoft patents", is Novell collecting royalties for Microsoft on its Linux sales? Has Novell committed to violation of the GPL?

Maybe it's all FUD. Maybe Linux distributions don't violate any Microsoft patents at all. But maybe the Novell deal is an opportunity to muddy the waters, suggest that, gee, maybe that pesky GPL is more of a burden than a benefit what with the possibility that you could be forced to stop distributing your software entirely if it's found to infringe on somebody's patents

Perhaps related to all this, here's an odd little co-incidence:
1. According to Novell's FAQ on the deal, the agreement focuses on technical co-operation in three main areas:virtualization, web services management and document format compatibility. Document format? Would that include Office document formats by any chance?
2. As of 20th November, basic support for Microsoft's VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) language has been thrown up into Openoffice.org's source code, per this blogpost
3.The ever-so-helpful and generous entity to give Openoffice.org this support for a previously Microsoft-only format? Novell. They've already incorporated the new functionality into Novell's own version of OO.o

Things that make you go hmmm...

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