Linspire Linux deal 'worse than Novell'

Microsoft's patent agreement with the Linux distributor shuts out GPLv3 and makes Linspire unsuitable for business, claims legal expert

The terms of Linux distributor Linspire's agreement with Microsoft betrays a deal "worse" than that between Microsoft and Novell, according to legal expert Pamela Jones.

Jones, author of the Groklaw blog, wrote on Sunday that the Linspire deal requires users to give up all the freedoms they would expect under the General Public License (GPL), the licence governing the use and distribution of much open-source software.

Announced in June, Microsoft's deal with Linspire was the latest in a series of arrangements made between Redmond and Linux distributors such as Novell and Xandros. Other distributors such as Canonical, Mandriva and Red Hat have spurned Microsoft's advances. The deals involve Microsoft pledging not to sue users of the Linux distributions over alleged — and unspecified — patent "violations" contained in the software.

Describing Linspire's arrangement with Microsoft as "the worst deal I've seen yet in this category" and "worse than Novell", Jones wrote that the agreement, which Microsoft refers to as a covenant, was antithetical to the point of open-source software. "You can't share the software with others, pass it on with the patent promise, modify your own copy, or even use it for an 'unauthorised' purpose, whatever that means in a software context," she wrote. "You must pay Linspire for the software, but then the 'covenant' says to use Linux, you must also pay Microsoft. That payment doesn't cover upgrades. Linspire said it was absorbing the initial fees, but I don't know about upgrades. New functionality means you lose your coverage or presumably must pay again."

Software covered by GPL version 3, the controversial recent update to the open-source licence, is also not protected in the Microsoft-Linspire deal, and neither is Freespire, the free version of Linspire's version of Linux. The terms of GPLv3 itself forbid any exclusive patent protection deals between firms using the licence and commercial software developers such as Microsoft.

Jones also pointed out that business users would be unable to purchase patent protection — a so-called patent SKU — for "anything running on a server", or for any "business applications designed, marketed and used to meet the data-processing requirements of particular business functions, such as but not limited to accounting, payroll, human resources, project management, personnel performance management, sales management, financial forecasting, financial reporting, customer relationship management and supply chain management".

"When you read that Linspire is thinking of offering various items via [Linspire's free online software warehouse] CNR to Freespire users, read the small print," wrote Jones. "You are not covered, as I read the terms. And if it were me, I'd insist on an explicit list of precisely what is and isn't covered, by application name, before I signed up for this."


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