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Novell bans proprietary Linux modules

Linux seller evicts closed-source modules from open-source Linux, but provides customers a download option.

In a change of heart, Novell has ceased distributing proprietary software modules such as 3D video drivers that plug into the Linux kernel.

The change came with Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server 10, released in July. With the move, Novell is aligning itself with the Free Software Foundation, which shuns proprietary software in general but in particular loathes proprietary modules that run as a component of the open-source Linux kernel.

The Linux kernel comes with numerous open-source modules that handle everything from storing files on hard drives to communicating with networks. However, a few companies offer proprietary modules that let Linux communicate with various hardware devices. Among the most widely used proprietary modules are video card drivers that provide 3D graphics support.

Although customers can still install proprietary modules on their own, Novell's ban reflects a new balance between the open-source and proprietary realms. The Linux kernel is governed by the General Public License (GPL), a document written initially by Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman and now being modernized.

"Many developers in the kernel community consider kernel level modules to be subject to the GPL terms. Novell respects this position and has a policy of distributing kernel modules that are compatible with the GPL," Holger Dyroff, vice president of Linux product management, said in a statement.

Some of those opposed to proprietary modules work for Novell itself. Kernel programmer Greg Kroah-Hartman, in a July speech at the Ottawa Linux Symposium, stated bluntly, "Closed-source Linux modules are illegal." Not only that, but they're "unethical" as well, he said.

The proprietary module ban began several months ago with Suse Linux 10, the company's free version that's being renamed OpenSuse, but only in July spread to the company's corporate products.

Instead, Novell software automatically gives customers the "option to download drivers," a method that "also gives the responsibility for drivers to the vendors, which is where it belongs," Dyroff said.

Proprietary modules can be difficult for customers, since sometimes software updates from the Linux supplier break compatibility with the driver. Novell's new technique ensures proprietary drivers stay up to date, the company said.

According to the Free Software Foundation's top lawyer, Eben Moglen, though, the kernel is governed in practice by a modified GPL. "If the kernel were pure GPL in its license terms...you couldn't link proprietary video drivers into it, whether dynamically or statically," Moglen said in a January interview.

With SLES 10, Novell kicked out some proprietary drivers, including one for ATI video cards, LSI Logic storage systems, some software-based modems, and ISDN networking equipment from AVM, spokesman Bruce Lowry said.

Proprietary drivers are in demand in some cases, despite philosophical and legal objections. One Linux version, Linspire's Freespire, features one-click access to proprietary drivers as a selling point. Linspire plans to launch the version Aug. 15 at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.