March 15, 2007

Novell-Microsoft agreement delays GPLv3

Author: Bruce Byfield

The November 2006 agreement between Microsoft and Novell is delaying the release of the final draft of the third version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3), says Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

According to the GPLv3 Process Definition published in January 2006, the FSF's original plan was to release the final draft of the license "in approximately October 2006" and to announce GPLv3 "no later than March 2007 and preferably on January 15, 2007." The process definition even talked about the possibility of the second draft, released in July 2006, being the final version if the committees assisting in the writing of GPLv3 had no outstanding issues.

The second draft raised concerns about language concerning patents and digital rights management technologies, with Linus Torvalds and other Linux kernel developers expressing their vocal opposition. All the same, shortly after the release of the second draft, Richard Fontana, a lawyer who is one of those writing the revised language, told Linux.com, "We do not plan to delay the process."

Announced around the time the third draft was scheduled, the Novell-Microsoft deal raised a number of unforeseen concerns. In both the media and the free software community, the agreement has been seen as a potential violation of the GPL, both because Microsoft would be paying a royalty to redistribute Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise, and because the agreement included patent protection for only Novell customers in the event that Microsoft's intellectual property were discovered in GNU/Linux. Although the FSF soon judged the agreement technically legal under the current version of the GPL, Eben Moglen, general counsel for the FSF and the principal legal architect for GPLv3, is quoted as saying, "Our strategy is to use GPLv3 against the deal."

Details about the process have not been made public. Yet it seems safe to speculate that the widespread concern about the Novell-Microsoft agreement in the free and open source software community has prolonged and intensified discussion on the GPLv3 committees. Discussion may be further prolonged by the fact that Novell has at least four members on the GPLv3 discussion committees (attorneys Greg Jones and Patrick McBride, testing architect Federico Lucifredi, CTO of Novell's Open Platform Solutions Group Markus Rex). Further complications may arise from the fact that Samba developer Jeremy Allison, who resigned from Novell to protest the agreement with Microsoft, is still listed as a committee member.

However, the largest reason for the delay seems to be the FSF's caution in dealing with such an unexpected situation. "We continue to work on the details of the GPLv3 as it relates to the situation presented by the Novell and Microsoft deal. We are researching issues related to potential unintended consequences of the language we plan to adopt," says Brown. "As soon as we are satisfied with the results of our research we plan to bring forward the next draft."

Brown declined to give details, except to say that he expected that the release of the next draft would be "a matter of days rather than weeks."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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