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Microsoft: In case you thought we had a clue on open source, surprise! We don't!

Microsoft wants to declare its independence from one of open source's biggest licenses, the GPL. Here's why it will fail.

This post by Microsoft (disclaiming its need to adhere to GPLv3) has me depressed. Not because of what it portends for open source, but because of how dumb it makes the company look, as Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet points out. Not to mention that it makes Novell look really dumb for trusting Microsoft to play nicely. (But then, that foolishness was never in doubt.)

Still, Novell has just released this response to Microsoft's position:

Shortly after the GPLv3 license was released, Microsoft issued a statement in which they expressed their view that Microsoft is not a party to the GPLv3 and it is therefore not applicable to them. Yesterday, they also articulated that, "to avoid any doubt or legal debate on this issue, Microsoft has decided that the Novell support certificates that we distribute to customers will not entitle the recipient to receive from Novell, or any other party, any subscription for support and updates that includes the receipt of any code licensed under GPLv3."

Microsoft's current position, taken unilaterally, is intended to eliminate any perceived ambiguity about the applicability of GPLv3 to Microsoft. Nonetheless and independent of Microsoft's position, we would like to make clear our commitment to our customers that Novell will continue to distribute SUSE Linux Enterprise Server with its full set of functionality and features, including those components that are licensed under GPLv3.

In other words, we'll carry the water for Microsoft since they really have turned out to be a terrible Linux partner. Who knew?

PJ at Groklaw rightly castigates Microsoft for backing out of its commitment. Stephe Walli goes one step further, chastising Microsoft for foolishly backing out of an entire future (which might well be perfectly rosy for Microsoft):

The...Microsoft statement seems a bit premature and over reaching. Stating outright that they aren't a party to it, means they've cut themselves off from using it in some future circumstance where it might be genuinely business beneficial. They would need to unmake this statement. By saying they can't envision such a situation arising shows a lack of imagination, and makes them as religious on the issue as (Free Software Foundation founder Richard) Stallman. They remain "committed to working with the open source community" without actually wanting to participate in it.

Bingo. Microsoft can't easily dis the GPL--any of its versions--and pretend to be a participant in the open-source community. You can have preferences for other licenses (as IBM does for BSD/Apache-style licensing), but you can't completely reject a license like the GPL without looking both foolish and isolated.

It's this last point that is the worst result for Microsoft. Microsoft needs to be involved in open source. Like it or not, it is a massive trend in software, and everyone will need to participate. People like Bill Hilf, Jason Matusow, Sam Ramji, and others get this, and have done excellent work to bring Microsoft to the open-source table as a full participant. But statements like these on GPLv3 undo much of the good that Bill/Jason/Sam do. It's time to move forward, not backward.