Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian made a sober case before a LinuxWorld audience Wednesday for his firm's technology and patent agreement with Microsoft last November. The occasional hiss, boo, and heckle from the crowd indicated that it wasn't a universally accepted message.
But Hovsepian stood his ground in saying the pact was necessary for Novell's SUSE Linux to fully interoperate with Windows in the data center. "Microsoft is part of a mixed source data center environment," he said, and Novell saw competitive advantage in making SUSE more Windows-compatible.
At the same time, he indicated that it was in Novell's interest to give its customers GPLv3 code when they were seeking updates, even if the customer was paying for Novell support through Microsoft certificates.
"When a customer asks for code, what we will give them is the latest version [of SUSE Linux] that we have on the shelf. It may include GPLv3 code," he said. A questioner asked if that would be true when the software was being paid for with a Microsoft support certificate, one of the outcomes of the Microsoft/Novell deal where Microsoft pays Novell customers for SUSE support. Yes, it would, Hovsepian said.
Microsoft has sought to avoid becoming a distributor of Linux because the open source General Public License forbids a GPL distributor from suing users of the code it distributes. Microsoft has asserted its patents cover parts of the Linux kernel and other open source code commonly found in Linux distributions.
In a statement July 5 on its Web site, Microsoft that its SUSE Linux support certificates "will not entitle the recipient to receive from Novell ... a subscription for support and updates relating to any code licensed under GPLv3."
It was in Novell's interest to offer the latest version of SUSE and accompanying open source packages to its customers, such as an upcoming release of Samba, under GPLv3 and not withhold code because of its Microsoft agreement, Hovsepian said.
The agreement had a twist where Microsoft gave no support money directly to Novell, the Linux distributor, but to Novell's customers as a way of avoiding being bound by the terms of the GPL.
"Microsoft is making it very clear that it does not view itself as a party to the [the GPLv3 license] contract" when its certificates purchase support for a SUSE distribution that includes GPLv3 code, Hovsepian said.
His statement prompted legal experts to peer into the newly defined terms of the GPLv3 to see whether Microsoft still might be covered by them, regardless of whether it agrees to them.
It's a topic that's hotly debated in open source circles since the Free Software Foundation and Eben Moglen's Software Freedom Law Center came up with the terms "propagate" and "convey" instead of just "distribute" to describe who was covered by the terms of the GPLv3. Legal observers, such as Pamela Jones at the GrokLaw site, say Microsoft's deal with Novell may expose it to a broader definition of who's covered by the GPL than "distribute" did.
Virginia Tsai Badenhope, an attorney with Smithline Jha LLp, a law firm specializing in open source licensing issues, attended LinuxWorld yesterday but after hearing of Hovsepian's comments, she recoiled from attempting to resolve the dispute.
The terms of the Microsoft/Novell deal, with their indirect payments to customers for Novell services, generate a muddled picture of where legal responsibilities lie, she said.
"That deal is so confusing. When I hear the words Novell, Microsoft, and patents, I just back off," she said. The picture may remain uncertain until a court case yields a legal opinion on the meaning of the terms, she added.
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