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Red Hat couches Microsoft-Novell pact as a Linux win

As the software maker endures a tough week, open-source experts question whether the deal would violate the GPL.

3 min read
Red Hat moved quickly on Friday to pour cold water on fellow Linux software maker Novell's partnership with Microsoft.

It published a response on its Web site within hours of the agreement between Microsoft and Novell, proclaiming that the deal was a victory for Linux rather than just Novell. Red Hat also distanced itself from the possibility that it might strike a similar deal with Microsoft.

"Excuse me while I go throw up. I gather Microsoft no longer thinks Linux is a cancer or communism. Now it just wants a patent royalty from it. Wasn't that kinda SCO's dream at first?"
--Pamela Jones, founder, Groklaw

On Thursday evening, Microsoft struck an alliance with Novell, saying it would promote Novell's Suse Linux portfolio for businesses that want an environment that mixes Microsoft's proprietary software with open-source software. The two companies are also due to work together on virtualization, Web services and open-source document formats.

"(The partnership) means Linux has won...Open-source innovation delivers better software and better value," Red Hat said in its response statement. "Openly defined standards create interoperability everyone can implement. It doesn't require a deal between two companies."

Answering the question of whether it considered a similar patent deal with Microsoft, Red Hat answered, "An innovation tax is unthinkable. Free and open-source software provides the necessary environment for true innovation."

Red Hat has experienced a tough week, with the Microsoft-Novell announcement following hot on the heels of Oracle's Linux launch, which will see Oracle selling support to Red Hat's customers--charging less than half of Red Hat's list prices--and also offering its own free clone of the open-source operating system.

Other industry watchers were concerned about the Microsoft-Novell alliance. Eben Moglen, the attorney for the Free Software Foundation, which oversees the General Public License, told CNET News.com that the deal could conflict with a provision in the GPL.

"If you make an agreement which requires you to pay a royalty to anyone for the right to distribute GPL software, you may not distribute it under the GPL," Moglen said. Whether the partnership precludes Novell from distributing Linux depends on the precise terms of its agreement with Microsoft, he said.

Bruce Perens, creator of the Open Source Definition, had a similar take.

"One of the questions yet to be settled is whether Novell will violate the GPL, the license of the Linux kernel and other open-source software, by offering patent protection that is exclusive to Novell customers," Perens wrote in a blog posting.

Legal Web site Groklaw was even more cynical.

"Excuse me while I go throw up," wrote Groklaw's founder, Pamela Jones. "I gather Microsoft no longer thinks Linux is a cancer or communism. Now it just wants a patent royalty from it. Wasn't that kinda SCO's dream at first?"

Jones continued, "I hate to break it to Ballmer, but Suse Linux is GPL code, which the two parties may find puts a little pebble in the shoe of this alliance."

Chris Papayianni, Novell's general manager for Europe, wasn't able to comment on the claims that Novell risks violating the GPL. He did say, however, that the deal would give Novell a significant boost in the U.K. marketplace.

"We're looking to expand the footprint of Linux through this deal with Microsoft," Papayianni said. "It will allow very strong interoperability with the Windows environment."

Papayianni added that the deal will give Novell a competitive advantage against other Linux vendors. "Our customers want better consolidation of server usage. One U.K. customer has huge power bills for his data center. Fewer servers need less power. This makes us very strong in the data center market and gives us a powerful differentiator."

Richard Thurston and Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.