Samba slams Microsoft-Novell pact

Developer group calls for Novell to undo the deal, which it deems "divisive" to the open source community.

Samba developers have slammed the patent agreement between Microsoft and Novell, warning that the deal could divide the open source community.

According to a Nov. 12 statement released by the Samba Team, the open source developer group labeled the Microsoft-Novell agreement as "divisive". The Samba Team comprises about 30 members from across the globe who contribute regularly to Samba, a popular open source software that allows Windows and Linux machines to interoperate.

The Samba Team said: "It deals with users and creators of free software differently depending on their 'commercial' versus 'non-commercial' status, and deals with them differently depending on whether they obtained their free software directly from Novell or from someone else."

Under the agreement, Microsoft has pledged not to enforce patent claims against individual, non-commercial Linux developers. Neither will the software colossus assert patents against programmers who are paid to work on Novell's OpenSuse platform. In return, Novell is expected to shell out at least US$40 million over five years to ensure Microsoft will not sue its SuSe customers.

Samba developers, however, have called for Novell to undo the deal and acknowledge its obligations as a beneficiary of the free software community.

According to the Samba Team, one of the key differences between proprietary and free software is that the former divides users by compelling them to agree to "coercive licensing agreements", which restrict their rights to freely share software with each other.

The goals of the free software community and the General Public License (GPL) do not allow for such distinctions, the developers noted, adding that the GPL also makes it clear that all distributors of GPL-based software must stand together in the fight against software patents. The free software world encourages its users to unite and share the benefits of software.

The Samba Team noted: "With this agreement, Novell is attempting to destroy that unified defense [against the peril represented by software patents], exchanging the long-term interests of the entire free software community for a short-term advantage for Novell over their competitors."

The Samba developers added that Novell's actions have indicated a "profound disregard for the relationship that they have with the free software community."

"We are, in essence, their suppliers, and Novell should know that they have no right to make self-serving deals on behalf of others which run contrary to the goals and ideals of the free software community."

The use of patents as competitive tools in the free software world is unacceptable, the Samba Team said. "Novell, as a participant in numerous debates, discussions and conferences on the topic knew this to be the case," it said.

However, Novell argues that its agreement with Microsoft is focused on its customers, and does not include a patent license.

"Novell's customers receive a covenant not to [be sued] directly from Microsoft," the company said in a FAQ Web page on the patent concerns in the deal. "We have not agreed with Microsoft to any condition that would contradict the conditions of the GPL, and we are in full compliance [of the license]."

Bradley Kuhn, CTO at the Software Freedom Law Center, said Microsoft's patent pledge has little value to developers.

In a note posted on the Law Center's site, Kuhn explained: "The patent covenant only applies to software that you develop at home and keep for yourself; the promises don't extend to others when you distribute.

"You cannot pass the rights to your downstream recipients, even to the maintainers of larger projects on which your contribution is built," he said.

Furthermore, to qualify for the pledge, developers must remain unpaid for their work. Kuhn noted that many free and open source software developers eventually expand their work for-profit consulting. Others are hired by companies that allow or encourage free software development on company time.

"In either situation, Microsoft's patent pledge is voided for that developer," he said.

While analyst house Gartner agreed that the Microsoft-Novell deal is meant to set CIOs' minds at ease, the success of this collaborative effort will be determined by several key factors, including how Microsoft and Novell solve the issues of who owns what within the software stack of a mixed Windows and Linux environment, and how customer accounts with mixed-source codes are managed.