GPL ‘Last Call’ Aims to Make MS-Novell Deal Last of Its Kind

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has released the “last call” draft of version 3 of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3). The near-final draft simultaneously paves for the way for the controversial Microsoft-Novell Suse Linux distribution pact while at the same time inhibits similar deals from occurring again in the future.

Under GPLv3, distributors who make discriminatory patent deals after March 28 may not convey software under the new license, the FSF says, noting that Novell is not prohibited from distributing this software because the patent protection they arranged with Microsoft last November can be turned against Microsoft to the community’s benefit.

In addition, the new license would extend Microsoft’s patent protections farther than the company originally intended.

“The Novell provisions essentially mean that anyone receiving the software — regardless of how it was acquired –will enjoy the same protections patent-wise that Novell’s customers enjoy today,” Stephen O’Grady, an analyst for RedMonk, told LinuxInsider.

Patent Protections Down the Road

More specifically, if someone is using a distribution of Linux that a provider has entered into a patent agreement with, those patent agreements must extend to every user of that Linux distribution. Basically, this means that Microsoft, as a distributor of Novell’s Suse Linux, will essentially give up its ability to effectively pursue patent-infringement lawsuits against Suse Linux users that have not acquired the distribution through its patent-protected distribution channels.

If Microsoft continues to distribute Novell’s Linux under GPLv3, customers have little patent-related incentive to order through Microsoft — unless they are buying integration-related services and support.

“Nothing in the last call draft of GPLv3 suggests that the final version of GPLv3 will inhibit Novell’s ability to include GPLv3 technologies in Suse Linux Enterprise, openSuse and other Novell offerings as these technologies become available. We note that the language which grandfathered the Novell-Microsoft agreement remains in the draft,” said Kevan Barney, Novell’s senior manager of public relations.

“The terms of the last call draft suggest that the final version of GPLv3 will not interrupt our partnership with Microsoft. We remain committed to that partnership, which we believe will help grow the Linux market and satisfy longstanding customer needs. We look forward to providing the fruits of our joint technical interoperability to our customers and our fellow community members in accord with our previously outlined roadmap,” he added.

No ‘Next Time’

“Microsoft made a few mistakes in the Novell-Microsoft deal, and GPLv3 is designed to turn them against Microsoft, extending that limited patent protection to the whole community. In order to take advantage of this, programs need to use GPLv3,” FSF Founder Richard Stallman noted on the FSF Web site in an essay about upgrading to GPLv3.

“Microsoft’s lawyers are not stupid, and next time they may manage to avoid those mistakes. GPLv3 therefore says they don’t get a ‘next time,'” he wrote. “Releasing a program under GPL version 3 protects it from Microsoft’s future attempts to make redistributors collect Microsoft royalties from the program’s users.”

Moving On

Software providers are not currently required to upgrade to GPLv3, so it’s possible that providers could remain on GPLv2 and enter into patent-protection agreements. As for Novell, it’s highly likely that the company will move to GPLv3 when it is finalized.

“Novell fully complies with the terms of the licenses for the software that we ship,” Barney told LinuxInsider.

Support for GPLv3 among the open source community, O’Grady said, is becoming more positive every day. “While migrating from GPLv2 to GPLv3 is still not a no-brainer, it’s increasingly viable,” he added.

Even though the Microsoft patent issues have dominated discussion, there are other benefits built into GPLv3.

“The reason to migrate is because of the existing problems which GPLv3 will fix, such as tivoization, DRM (digital rights management) and threats from software patents,” Stallman noted. “Further advantages of GPLv3 include better internationalization, gentler termination, support for BitTorrent and compatibility with the Apache license.”

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