openSUSE holds public IRC Q&A on Microsoft/Novell deal

Author: Joe Barr

OpenSUSE project developers held a public IRC meeting at noon EST today to discuss the recently announced and highly controversial Microsoft/Novell agreements. Nat Friedman, chief technical and strategy officer for open source at Novell, fielded most of the questions, with assistance from Andreas Jaeger, openSUSE project manager, and others.The one-hour session (see the complete IRC log here) was moderated by Henne Vogelsang. Participants were given voice (the ability for their remarks to be seen by everyone on the channel) one at a time, and only while asking a question. The moderation was necessary, given that there were about 200 people on the channel, including individuals working on other distributions.

Following is a lightly edited version of some of the most interesting questions and answers. Questions not answered during the session itself will appear on the openSUSE wiki.

Q: Why was nobody from SUSE technical staff aware of the deal until the last moment?

Andreas Jaeger: I planned to get briefed on the Tuesday before, but was flying at that time.
A couple of others were briefed — and I was briefed finally a few hours before.

Nat Friedman: I was aware of discussions with Microsoft for a number of months. Big companies are often talking to each other, though, and I didn’t know if this conversation would go anywhere.

Q: Meaning nobody from technical had anything to do with it or help constructing it?
Only got a notice from suits saying, “Hey, we did this”?

Nat Friedman: There weren’t technical people in the meetings in Redmond negotiating it, but we were asked for our input and made aware of the deal. And a bunch of people were told a week or so before the deal was announced.

In general for huge deals like this, you try to keep the number of people involved low or suddenly the whole industry is talking about it, so I’m not surprised that there was [no] open discussion on a mailing list about this 🙂

Q: Did you enjoyed Shuttlesworth’s open letter?

Andreas Jaeger: No, I didn’t. You should have seen my reply, or my blog entry. I understand that he does not agree with the deal but this was one step to far IMO.

Q: What do you think about FSF’s announcements about GPLv3?

Nat Friedman: The GPLv3 process has been underway since the beginning of this year.
The FSF and Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center put together a process with four separate committees to discuss what needs to be in GPLv3.

Committee A is big open source projects, B is big companies, C is users and smaller companies, and D is individuals and “other.” So A includes, for example, Samba. Novell has representatives in both committtees A and B, and we have been talking to Eben about the FSF about the GPLv3 for a long time.

We’re glad that they committed to making the writing of GPLv3 an open process. We think it’s better if the GPLv3 is accepted by lots of companies and individuals and projects.

Lately Eben and Richard and others have made some statements that they will “invalidate” the Novell/Microsoft deal with GPLv3. We’re not exactly sure what they mean by that, because so far these are just vague statements. We’ll be interested in seeing the wording they are proposing for GPLv3.

We’re glad they’re talking about GPLv3, also, because it means that they don’t think there are any incompatiblities between GPLv2 and the covenants issued by Novell and Microsoft. We invited Eben to our offices in Waltham and he read the entire Microsoft/Novell agreement.

If you want to understand what are the promises that Microsoft has made to Novell customers, you can read those on

Q: Will any changes be made to the Microsoft/Novell agreements because of the uproar about them?

Nat Friedman: There’s definitely one thing that we’ve asked Microsoft to look at. During the discussion with them, we asked Microsoft to make a promise not to sue individual developers, ever, for patent infringement. And we were pleasantly surprised that they were very open to doing this.

The “individual non-commercial” covenant that you can find on their Web site is the result of that discussion. Personally, I think it falls short of the mark. I don’t think it covers enough people. I think it’s a big step that Microsoft is going out there and saying “we’re not going to sue individuals,” and they’re saying this in a legally binding way.

Some people have said “Microsoft was never going to sue individuals,” but just look at the RIAA in the US, which is suing 15-year-olds and 95-year-old grandmas. So we’re glad Microsoft started from that sentiment.

But the execution stinks so far. We’ve asked them to update that covenant and they are working on it. They’re going to send us a draft this week. You even have one Microsoft employee, Jason Matusow, asking for public comment about these covenants on his blog.

Q: Novell claims to have not acknowledged any patent infringements by Linux. But Novell is now paying a tax to Microsoft on the Linux distributions it ships. What, exactly, is Novell paying

Nat Friedman: We’re paying for the promise that Microsoft made to our customers not to sue them.

Q: Not to sue them for *what*? For problems you don’t acknowledge exist?

Nat Friedman: We put together an agreement with Microsoft to make Linux and Windows work better together. Now, as everyone knows, Microsoft has spent the last 10 years saying negative things about Linux, including implying that there are IP issues in Linux. It didn’t make sense for us to do a partnersihp with Microsoft on interoperability issues and still have this patent cloud hanging around for our customers, so Microsoft asked us to put together a patent agreement as well. And so we promise Microsoft’s customers that we won’t sue them and they promise the same thing to our customers. They pay us for our promise and we pay them for their promise. It doesn’t matter if the allegations from MSFT are true or not. People can sue each other anyway, and a patent lawsuit is very expensive to defend against.

Q: How did you come up with the value for the “promise” that Microsoft made?

Nat Friedman: I have no idea how they did that. In general, when it comes to patent questions, you look at two things:
1. The patents that the patent holder has.
2. The business over the person who wants patent protection or coverage.
And the dollar amount is usually a function of these two values. So, for example, you might only hold one patent, but if you sue company X for infringing your one patent, and company X makes $1 billion/year in revenue based on their product that infringes your patent, then even though you only have one patent, you can extract a lot of money from company X.

So I’m guessing the team that put together the deal considered both the Microsoft and the Novell revenue. You notice that the balance of payments is heavily in Novell’s favor. Microsoft is giving us much more money than we are giving them.

Novell has a few hundred patents, and Microsoft has thousands. So you can guess that the quality of the patents and the revenue streams of both companies were considered.

Q: Most of the Novell engineers were suspiciously quiet about the deal with Microsoft, so would you say it is fair to interpret this as a sign of silently not-agreeing with it? Or asked more directly: Do you think this was the right thing to do?

Andreas Jaeger: I wanted to say something directly — and was on the IRC channel afterwards.
I listened to the webcast and started writing my blog — and went to bed. Next morning the Microsoft Covenants were out and confused me — and I guess a lot of others. So, we had some internal discussions…

Nat Friedman: I think people have overreacted to this deal. I guess because it involves the words “Microsoft” and “patents.” I think a few major things happened here:

1. Novell got Microsoft to acknowledge that Linux is an important part of IT, and that customers need it. This is a huge step forward from where things were before. Compare this to “Linux is a cancer” from not that long ago.

2. Novell cut a good business deal for itself. Novell gets a lot of revenue out of this, and we’ll be able to invest some of that in engineering, in openSUSE, in making Linux great.

3. Windows/Linux interoperability will improve. We’re going to write new virtualization code, new Open XML code, and release it all as open source. We contribute heavily to open source already, but now we can do more.

Now, to address people’s concerns:

4. This deal does not take anything away from anyone. Microsoft promising not to sue Novell’s customers does not mean that they are promising TO sue anyone else. I know people like to look at the “negative space” on this because everyone implicitly thinks Microsoft are legal geniuses and can’t be trusted. But the fact is, nothing has been taken away. No useful legal precedent has been created. A judge will never look at this deal and say “Okay, your patents are all infringed by Linux, Mr. Ballmer.” So I think all the cries that Novell has hurt the community are simply not true.

5. This deal does not violate GPLv2. Eben Moglen read our agreement and hasn’t said a thing about GPLv2 violation. It’s abundantly clear that he doesn’t think there is any. Instead, he and Richard are using the community energy to try to get people to adopt the previously controversial GPLv3, which we support also.

6. Ballmer has been FUDding Linux on IP issues for years. This deal didn’t change anything on that front, obviously. Ron (our CEO) published a nice letter the other day contradicting Ballmer’s statements. So, net-net, Microsoft acknowledges Linux, we improve interop, Novell gets more money into Linux. And nothing is lost from a legal perspective.

People say, “You’re dividing the community!” But I think the people who make too much of this, who shun Novell, are the ones dividing the community.

Q: You were talking about re-investing the money in openSUSE: Something to back that up? What will we get? More paid engineers?

Nat Friedman: “Stay tuned.” I hope so 🙂

Andreas Jaeger: I fear that it won’t mean higher salaries 😉

Q: What is Novell’s stance on GPLv3? Will it be used by Novell?

Nat Friedman: GPLv3 doesn’t exist yet. We haven’t seen a near-final draft yet. So it’s hard to say. Some projects will adopt it, and some of those are really critical to what we do — glibc for example.

We are very happy with GPLv2 and it looks like the kernel will probably stick with that. We have some X11 licensed code, for example the Mono class libraries, X, etc.

Adrian L: The reasons why GPLv3 is not liked for Novell are also valid for other companies, so in the current state it would not be used by a large number of companies, I fear.

Nat Friedman: That’s a good point. Also one thing to consider is indemnification being offered by other companies. So for example, Red Hat and Oracle both claim to offer patent indemnification to their customers. If you are customer A, and you buy Linux from one of those companies, they promise to step in and protect you from any patent lawsuits. But that promise is only for their customers. So if you make a copy of the software and give it to customer B, who did not pay Red Hat or Oracle, the promise does not extend to customer B.

This is similar in concept and in form to the promise Microsoft is making to Novell’s customers. So my guess is that GPLv3 will need to be compatible with the existing business practices of all those Linux companies. Hewlett-Packard offers that, too, I believe.

Q: Are there any benefits for the whole open source community from this deal?

Nat Friedman: A few. We are collaborating with Microsoft on a few different interop areas.
We’ll be adding Open XML support to, building a virtualization shim to run SLES optimized on Veridian and Vista on Xen. We’ll also be working together on WS-Management. All this code will be released open source. So everyone gets that, and can benefit from it.

By the way, in that process, we don’t plan to add Microsoft-patented code to our contributions. Our policy on that is unchanged — and Microsoft didn’t give us the right to do that anyway!

Also I think it’s good that Microsoft acknowledges Linux, and we want that individual covenant from Microsoft to be better, so that all the hackers of the world know for certain that they won’t be sued.

Q: I think this agreement creates a perception that Novell/SUSE is moving away from the open source community. What will Novell do to keep users from migrating away to other distributions?

Nat Friedman: We’re not moving away from open source at all! I think there are a lot of misunderstandings out there and we need to clear those up, like we’re doing here.

Also, I think people choose Linux distributions because they’re good, because they work well. We’re going to keep working hard to make SUSE the best Linux distribution on the planet 🙂

Q: What does Microsoft get from the deal? And what happens if Microsoft does not keep the promises?

Nat Friedman: We will make fun of them in public. 🙂

I’m not exactly sure what the provisions are on breach of contract in this deal, but usually it’s a pretty serious thing. Also, the covenants Microsoft is offering are not secret. You can go to right now and read them. They are promises Microsoft is making to all Novell customers, and Microsoft intends them to be legally binding.

Everyone thinks Microsoft has these geniuses who always put together bulletproof deals, but history speaks otherwise on that. Remember the case where Microsoft sued Lindows for trademark infringement? The judge who oversaw the case ended up calling into question the Windows trademark itself. Microsoft essentially lost in the US, and ended up paying Lindows a HUGE $24 million settlement. And all Lindows had to do was change the name. The whole deal was supposed to be secret, but then Lindows (now Linspire) was compelled by the SEC to reveal the secrets of the deal as a material financial event for Linpsire, which was going public at the time.

So — here you have Microsoft suing a small company, and the result is, they pay $24 million, their secrets aren’t kept, and the Windows trademark itself is questioned. This does not sound like the work of geniuses.

So I would turn the paranoia knob down one notch 🙂

We are glad to be partnered with Microsoft and are really glad they want to work together with us to make Linux/Windows interoperability function better.

Q: Do you fear openSUSE developers will migrate to other distributions, as proposed by Shuttlesworth? Why/why not?

Adrian L: I do not fear Shuttleworth, because people who fear that openSUSE might violate GPL will not go to a distro which actually is doing it. 😉

Of course there is always a risk that people will switch because of decisions, but there is also always the chance that others switch to because of this reason in the opposite direction.

Nat Friedman: Also, openSUSE is clearly a great distribution. We’re glad Ubuntu is out there too — the more the merrier — as the pie is plenty big enough for all of us.

I also just want to say, for the Ubuntu question, I think it’s best for Linux if we all focus on taking users from Microsoft instead of shifting them between Linux distributions.

Also, there are a few billion people out there who haven’t even chosen an operating system yet, so that leaves a lot of room for all of us.

Q: _If_ this deal is going to violate GPLv3, is Novell willing to fork all the last GPLv2 versions of the libaries and components needed to put a distribution out the door (glibc, gcc etc.)?

Nat Friedman: Obviously we don’t want to spend our time forking and maintaining parallel branches of glibc, gcc, etc. But it’s really hard to discuss GPLv3, considering it doesn’t exist yet.

And despite these ominous and threatening statements from Eben and Richard, we don’t know what form it will take. The way I heard their statements, they were more of a threat to Microsoft than to Novell.

Q: How does this “non-commercial vs. commercial” developer split affect Google Summer of Code students who obviously earned money for their work during the summer and who continue to contribute to their respective projects in their spare time now?

Nat Friedman: It’s not clearly defined. I think that’s one of the limitations of the individual covenant. As we mentioned before, we are not happy with the way that covenant was written. Microsoft has acknowledged that the covenant is not good enough either. Google for “Jason Matusow covenant” and you’ll find a blog from an Microsoft employee about that. We are working with Microsoft to improve that covenant so that it’s actually useful.

Q: Do you think the community feedback you recieved is somewhat “organised”? And what is the motivation to do so?

Nat Friedman: I think it’s pretty disorganized. Different people are expressing different opinions. Some people say “Oh god! A deal with Microsoft!” Some say “A deal with Microsoft is good! But oh god, you acknowledged that patents are infringed by Linux!” And then some people said, “A deal with Microsoft is OK! And every piece of software infringes patents! But the covenants are not good!” So I don’t think it’s particularly organized.