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Good news for Linux: Microsoft, Novell pact in trouble

All is not well with the Microsoft/Novell patent covenant, which is just fine by many Linux supporters. Will this issue drive pragmatic Linux kernel developers and the activist Free Software Foundation back into each other's arms over the next version of the GNU Public License (GPLv3)?

David Berlind is reporting that all is not well in what Dana Gardner called the "Fox marries chicken" deal between Microsoft and Novell earlier this month.

This is a good thing, say many GNU/Linux supporters.

[poll id=8] Free software supporters are already working to undercut the deal, which brought Novell several hundred million dollars. Eben Moglen, one of the main players behind the drafting of the next version of the GNU Public License used by GNU/Linux, says that the deal infringes upon user freedom. According to Moglen, it would force many of them to buy Linux from a vendor that has worked a deal with Microsoft. That's exactly the point, says Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. "If a customer says, 'Look, do we have liability for the use of your patented work?' Essentially, if you're using non-Suse Linux, then I'd say the answer is yes," Ballmer told eWeek.com recently. (At least he's clarifying that, yes, it's all about patents).

To combat the patent covenant (er, "IP bridge" in Microsoft-speak), the Free Software Foundation's next draft of GPLv3 is expected to include a new clause that any promises not to sue would automatically apply to everyone using the new license. Thus, if the MS/Novell pact were not canceled then Microsoft would find itself essentially indemnifying all GNU/Linux vendors and users.

There's just one little problem with this strategy, however. The Linux kernel is stuck firmly at GPL version 2. The "GNU" part of GNU/Linux will have no problem transitioning to the new version, because the source code is copyrighted by the Free Software Foundation (assigning copyright is a precondition of contributing). But the "Linux" part, i.e., the kernel itself, is a different story. Most of the contributors would need to go along with it, yet many object to anti-DRM language in the current draft--language they say inappropriately extends beyond the software realm. Chief among the objectors is Linux creator and "benevolent dictator" Linus Torvalds.

The best outcome from all this would be a reconciliation between the two camps. Stallman and Moglen would compromise (you in the back, quit laughing) and remove or soften the controversial language, while Torvalds and friends would accept some tighter developer restrictions and move to GPLv3.

But this time guys, please add the "or later" clause so we won't have to go through this again in a few years.