Does interoperability violate the GPL?

Summary:If you want to bring suit based on an interpretation of the GPL at odds with the understanding of the Linux Foundation go ahead. But so far no one has taken them up on the offer.

VMWare boxes from its logo
I got an e-mail this morning, tickling me to look into the idea that VMWare is violating the GPL.

This idea has been around for some time and Big Money Matt has covered it beautifully.

(Matt Asay's writing is first-rate and his sources top-notch. If he ever decided to become a full-time reporter I'd hire him in a New York minute.)

Apparently VMWare loads a module of Linux in order to provide its function, which is virtualization.

In a response to one of Matt's pieces Bruce Perens of the Software Freedom Law Center wrote in to say that nVidia does the same thing, but that the Linux Foundation has done nothing to pursue the matter in court.

"This legal theory will have to be decided with another GPL kernel, not Linux," he concluded.

The reasonable follow-on question becomes, why? And the answer I return with is interoperability.

One of the key Internet values is that things should work together. By following the Internet Protocol while online Linux and Windows machines do just that.

But the concept of interoperability goes beyond this, and it can run into a brick wall with absolutists on both sides. If you can't touch the code you can't interoperate. You can't virtualize.

Long ago, Linus Torvalds took a practical approach to this problem. The Linux kernel has never been subject to FOSS absolutism, the requirement that in order to use it you have to give everything you do back to the community.

As to the questions raised by VMWare, it would seem, Torvalds brings up the loadable module exception. It's a gray area, he writes. He doesn't want to get into it. Better to write code.

This is part of what I call the Fourth Freedom, the freedom to get back what's added to the code, the tip of the spear separating FOSS from open source.

FOSS considers this to be bedrock, open source clay. Open source, as a business model, is not rigid on this point. FOSS, especially through the GPL V. 3, attempts to be rigid on this point. Linux is still under the GPL V. 2.

VMWare has been, since August, a member in good standing of the Linux Foundation. The question my PR friend was asking, in other words, has been asked and answered.

If you want to bring suit based on an interpretation of the GPL at odds with the understanding of the Linux Foundation go ahead. But so far no one has taken them up on the offer.

Should they?

Topics: VMWare, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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