GPL version 3 addresses Microsoft, Novell agreement

The Free Software Foundation Wednesday released the penultimate draft of its planned third version of a popular license for free and open-source software, the GNU general public license (GPL). Created by Richard Stallman in 1989 for the GNU free operating system project, the GPL was last fully revised 16 years ago. The license gives users the right to freely study, copy, modify, reuse, share and redistribute software.

The FSF issued a first draft of GPLv3 in January 2006, followed by a second draft with noticeably more restrained language in July. The plan had been to bring out a third and final draft in October or November, but then Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc. announced a surprise partnership around Novell’s Suse Linux including a patent cross-licensing agreement. Parts of the Linux operating system including its kernel are licensed under GPL version 2.

Stallman, president of the FSF and the principal author of the GPL, said Wednesday that the patent agreement between Microsoft and Novell aims to undermine the user software freedoms enshrined in the license. “In this draft we have worked hard to prevent such deals from making a mockery of free software,” he said in a written statement.

The new GPLv3 draft notes that the full details of the agreement between Microsoft and Novell have yet to be disclosed, but adds: “It is a matter of public knowledge, however, that the arrangement calls for Novell to pay a portion of the future gross revenue of one of its divisions to Microsoft, and that (as one feature of a complex arrangement) Microsoft has promised Novell’s customers not to bring patent infringement actions against certain specific copies of Novell’s Suse ‘Linux’ Enterprise Server product for which Novell receives revenue from the user, so long as the user does not make or distribute additional copies of the SLES.”

This arrangement makes the free software “basically proprietary,” according to the draft. So far, the FSF hasn’t noted any adverse effects on users. “We take the threat seriously, and we have decided to act to block such threats, and to reduce their potential to do harm,” the draft states. “Such deals also offer patent holders a crack through which to split the community. Offering commercial users the chance to buy limited promises of patent safety in effect invites each of them to make a separate peace with patent aggressors, and abandon the rest of our community to its fate.” The draft’s authors also worry that if enough users succumb to those tactics, a vendor might eventually be able to”terrify noncommercial developers into abandoning the software entirely.”

In order to address such concerns, the draft in its patents section now states that anyone who distributes others’ software covered by the GPL and makes promises of patent safety to a limited group of users automatically extends such promises to cover all recipients of all copies of the covered works.

The FSF also aimed to deter future deals involving limited promises of patent safety, using the cutoff date of March 28, 2007. “We believe it is sufficient to ensure either the deal’s voluntary modification by Microsoft or its reduction to comparative harmlessness,” the draft stated.

“Microsoft and Novell built a bridge between the worlds of proprietary and open-source software in order to solve problems that real customers care about, while respecting the terms of the GPLv2 license,” Horacio Gutierrez , Microsoft’s vice president, intellectual property and licensing, said in a statement. “We note that the draft of the GPLv3 does not tear down the bridge Microsoft and Novell have built for their customers. It is unfortunate, however, that the FSF is attempting to use the GPLv3 to prevent future collaboration among industry leaders to benefit customers.”

“We will continue to distribute Linux,” Novell spokesman Bruce Lowry wrote in an official blog. “Nothing in this new draft of GPL3 inhibits Novell’s ability to include GPL3 technologies in SUSE Linux Enterprise, openSUSE, and other Novell open source offerings, now and in the future.”

Novell wouldn’t comment specifically on the provisions in the draft. “We are firmly committed to continuing the partnership with Microsoft and, as we always have, fully complying with the terms of the licenses for the software that we ship, including software licensed under GPL3,” the spokesman wrote. “If the final version of the GPL3 does potentially impact the agreement we have with Microsoft, we’ll address that with Microsoft.”

The full text of the license and a rationale for the changes is available on the FSF’s GPLv3 Web site.