September 18, 2002

UnitedLinux might not be very GPL-friendly

- by Tina Gasperson -

UnitedLinux held a telephone party today to announce new general manager Paula Hunter and
talk about its open beta release. Lots of curious journalists showed
up. The question-askers all had a cynical air about them, and yet UnitedLinux bigwigs
didn't seem surprised by the grilling. The underlying question still: what will
UnitedLinux mean in the big picture that is Linux business? Our question: what
about the GPL? (Also inside, an open letter to the UnitedLinux group from the FSF.)

The UnitedLinux people shielded Hunter from having to answer any technical questions about Linux (or Line-Ux as
the conference call coordinator pronounced it), when someone asked just how much
experience she's had with Linux and Free Software anyway. Some thought it odd
that Ransom Love is no longer in the picture either at SCO or UnitedLinux (Paula
didn't really have an answer for that either.)

And there was talk from some journalists about the possibility of the separate
Linux companies that make up UnitedLinux simply merging to form one gigantic
Linux behemoth that could be the unstoppable Goliath all corporate guys lust
after. UL batted its eyelashes at that suggestion, not willing to play kiss and
tell just yet.

But what we at NewsForge really wanted to know was how UnitedLinux is planning
to stay true to the heart of Linux -- the GNU General Public License. Nobody else
seemed interested, so we asked how UL managed to release a closed beta and still
comply with the terms of the GPL.

UnitedLinux admitted it had its partners sign a non-disclosure agreement in
order to use the closed beta, which likely means that UL violated the
copyright of kernel developers everywhere and others who have contributed to
GNU/Linux. If the NDA was structured so that the GPL would take precedence on
non-proprietary, Free Software elements of the software, then that NDA would not
violate the terms of the GPL. It is more likely, however, that the NDA squashed
the GPLed freedoms by forcing recipients of the closed beta to agree that they
would not redistribute any portion of the software.

Bradley Kuhn, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, was also
on the conference call, and he asked the UnitedLinux hosts if they would be
willing, as a show of solidarity with the Free Software and Open Source
communities, to open up their NDA to inspection in order to show that they did
comply with the terms of the GPL. They said they'd take that under advisement.
But I wouldn't hold my breath.

Kuhn followed up his phone question with this open letter, sent today to all members of UnitedLinux:

Dear UnitedLinux Board of Managers,

On the conference call announcement that occurred on 18 September 2002, you
indicated that you'd be willing to release to the Free Software community
the terms that of your "closed beta" NDA, to show that your closed beta
was indeed distributed in compliance with the terms of the GNU General
Public License and the GNU Lesser General Public License.

As you know, distribution of any type is still distribution under
copyright law, and thus requires that you properly comply with terms of
GPL and LGPL. Of course, it is your prerogative to distribute only to
those parties you wish to receive a copy, but you may not restrict those
parties' rights under GNU GPL and LGPL.

However, since nearly all of the volunteers from the Free Software
community (your fellow developers) did not receive a copy of the so-called
"closed beta", we ask that in a show of good faith, you make available at
least the terms of distribution you used for that product.

Even as you release your new product to the public, the past situation
must be clarified. Not only does the community deserve to know, but I
also believe it behooves you to put to rest and clarify the legal
ambiguities that arise naturally from doing a "closed beta" of GPL'ed

I look forward to your prompt response, and thank you for taking my
question today. I presume that you are acting in full compliance with
GPL; this is just a matter of clarifing that fact for the community.


Bradley M. Kuhn
Executive Director, Free Software Foundation

Other so-called Linux advocates don't seem to be too concerned about the
closed tendencies showing up in UnitedLinux: Linux International and the Free
Standards Group are two .orgs that have endorsed the group, composed of
Turbolinux, SCO, SuSE, and Conectiva. Pundits have suggested that Linux International and the Free Standards Group may
have even signed NDAs themselves.

So what's the big deal? UnitedLinux is going to put a public beta online in the next
week or so, and the source code will be included for free (even though it
doesn't have to be free). UL will only charge for commercial use. But will
they include the source on that? And will there be another NDA to sign? That's
the big deal: Is UnitedLinux down with the idea behind software libre, or are
they just trying to become a Red Hat killer and Linux oligopoly in order to make
some fast bucks? After all, Turbolinux, SCO, SuSE and Conectiva have not been
known as staunch Free Software adherents (correction: Conectiva has toed the line on Free Software fairly well - my error - TG) -- unlike two other commercial distros:
Mandrake and Red Hat.

A little more openness, a little more communications, and maybe a peek at the
NDA would go a long way in developing trust in the community which has so
generously provided to UL years of hard work on the Linux kernel and other Free

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