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Moglen: Microsoft-Novell raises GPL questions

It's possible that Thursday's deal between Microsoft and Novell could conflict with a provision in the General Public License (GPL), according to Eben Moglen, the attorney for the Free Software Foundation that created and oversees the Linux license.

"If you make an agreement which requires you to pay a royalty to anybody for the right to distribute GPL software, you may not distribute it under the GPL," Moglen told CNET Thursday. Section 7 of the GPL "requires that you have, and pass along to everybody, the right to distribute software freely and without additional permission."

Microsoft and Novell announced Thursday a deal under which Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server and Desktop customers need not fear Microsoft will assert patent rights against them. In addition, Microsoft pledged not to assert patents against unpaid open-source programmers or against any open-source programmers contributing to Novell's OpenSuse.

Whether the partnership precludes Novell from distributing Linux depends on precise terms of the agreement that Moglen hasn't seen, he cautioned. But he found other aspects of the deal troubling, too.

Microsoft's pledge not to sue unpaid programmers is "no comfort at all," given the quantity of paid open-source programmers.

"I and my firm don't take comfort from statement from Microsoft that they won't sue programmers as long as they don't get paid," Moglen said. "We represent developers of free and open-source software. If Microsoft or anyone else attempts to sue our clients for doing what they do to create software, because they're being paid for it, then the people doing that will be sorry. We protect our clients."