Monday, November 06, 2006

Evil Creeping At Your Door

It's odd how concommitant my Free Software / Open Source Software experiences have been this week.

I heard Richard Stallman speak at the local law school recently and it was... interesting. I recorded it so I could quote more exactly, but my MP3 player took this opportunity to corrupt the filesystem and junk my recorded files. Nice.

Basically he thinks proprietary software is criminal. He also picks lots of things out of his hair. He also likes to play the recorder to parrots. He also thinks taxing CD media is a good way to subsidize music. I'm not kidding on any of these.

He spoke of the "tivotization" of software - basically digitially signing one's binaries to ensure they're completely tied to a given hardware platform. Linus doesn't care if his kernel is "tivolized" - he's just happy to have people contributing to the kernel however they see necessary. Stallman has vested a lifelong fight against it. He loves to say "GNU + Leeenux" as opposed to just "Linux" as most are accustomed to. Some people believe this is a minor distinction... that Linus' "Open Source Software" is pretty much the same as "Free Software." Wrong - Stallman believes all software should be tinkerable and modifiable, imminently hackable like your car's carburetor. Making something unmodifiable, like not being able to recompile your Tivo's kernel, is like welding your car's hood shut.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to help push Linux adoption at home by having our office adopt SLES 10. No sooner had I received approval than Novell announced their partnership to Microsoft. The divide between Free Software and Open Source Software was cleaved apart even further - now they're on opposite sides of a huge digital divide.

Some see this as an incarnation of Ghandi's famous quote:
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.


But it's not. It's more like "they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they build up an ominous intellectual property portfolio, then offer indemnity only if you recognize we're right and you're wrong."

As The Register recently pointed out, Novell has effectively become a licensee of Microsoft intellectual property. Now Microsoft can point to SuSE as their "competition in the market," sue the other Linux distros and steer Novell in whatever direction they wish. Now Microsoft has enormous leverage over SuSE, because now Novell can no longer afford to exit the Microsoft deal. The moment they do, Microsoft can litigate the pants off of Novell. Novell has now acknowledged Linux uses Microsoft intellectual property, because they've effectively been given free reign to use said IP by Microsoft. The moment they exit the covenant with Microsoft, they're screwed. Microsoft can always argue that since SuSE had access to their IP, it has to be embedded in their product offering.

Novell will no doubt say they've just entered into a covenant not to sue with Microsoft, and this just allows open source developers to innovate without worry of litigation. But this just doesn't make any sense; Microsoft is paying Novell. Is Novell giving anything in return? No. What this gives Microsoft is their own "blessed" version of Linux, expansion of its intellectual property dominion, and the ability to insert their own "viral licensing."

Microsoft did this once in 1999, by promoting Linux during their antitrust trials. Their trial started the .com bubble bursting, but greatly increased adoption of Linux. Now they're trying to do the same thing for Europe, pointing to their interoperability with SuSE.

And now I need to go find a new Linux distro.

EDIT: I just had to add this quote from a Computer Business Review Online article, taken from Microsoft's chief executive, Steve Ballmer:
"Novell is actually just a proxy for its customers, and it's only for its customers," [Steve Ballmer] added. "This does not apply to any forms of Linux other than Novell's SUSE Linux. And if people want to have peace and interoperability, they'll look at Novell's SUSE Linux. If they make other choices, they have all of the compliance and intellectual property issues that are associated with that."


If that's not a threat, I don't know what is.

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