Novell-Microsoft pact not about interoperability, says Open Source leader


LinuxWorld OpenSolutions Summit speaker Jeremy Allison explains some tricky details of Linux/Windows interoperability, what the Novell/Microsoft deal really does for interoperability, and a vision for a future easy-to-administer network filesystem.

Don Marti, You’ve been in the news lately for leaving Novell over the controversial Novell/Microsoft patent licensing deal.

Jeremy Allison: That’s true.

LinuxWorld: Now, when I talked to you a while ago, you said, “I don’t give away my software. I cooperate with people who cooperate with me. How does that relate to what’s going on here, patent licensing-wise?”

Allison: Well, kind of peripherally really. Essentially, this is going back to the misnomer of “free software.” A lot of people, corporations included, hear the word free, and they don’t think about the second meaning of the word free. They just think, “oh, it’s without cost.” And, of course, it isn’t. And the cost is you have to reciprocate. You have to give exactly the same terms to people you give it to that you get yourself. It’s the share and share a like kind of license.

So, when somebody violates that essentially by negotiating favorite terms for themselves, that they don’t want to give to other people, then that I object to strenuously, up to and including leaving a company because of it. This is why some people in the free software community like to say software libre, liberated software, although that doesn’t quite mean the same thing in English either. But essentially it’s a word meaning the second meaning of the word free, which is freedom.

LinuxWorld: We need an extra word for free in the English language now.

Allison: I’m sure Richard Stallman will come up with one. After all, he works at MIT where Noam Chomsky works. I’m sure Chomsky can come up with something.

LinuxWorld: That sounds like a good project that maybe he can get a Google Summer of Code student to work on for him. So, you’re at Google now?

Allison: I am indeed. And you know what they say about Google? It’s like Fight Club. The first rule about Google is you don’t talk about Google. And the second rule about Google is you don’t talk about Google. Now that’s kind of secretive. But fun — a lot of fun.

LinuxWorld: It’s my favorite fajita place in Mountain View.

Allison: You don’t like La Fiesta instead — man!

LinuxWorld: I like La Fiesta for the burritos, but the fajitas at Google really have something going for them.

Allison: I’m still a La Fiesta man. In case people don’t know, La Fiesta is the place where the SGI engineers used to go every Wednesday night. But this was back when they occupied the Google campus. It’s funny. I ran into a guy I used to work with who was a director of engineering I think at SGI. We’re essentially in the same campus. And we looked at each other and said, “It’s kind of like coming home, isn’t it?”

LinuxWorld: SGI put some of their internal man pages on the Internet in I think it was 1997.

Allison: Did they?

LinuxWorld: And one of the internal commands at SGI was the burrito command. Allison: Oh, I vaguely remember that — yes, yes. You could specify your burrito.

LinuxWorld: You’d type in burrito, and depending on either the command line options you supplied or the contents of your “.burritorc” file, it would generate the appropriate burrito order and send it out with the fax server.

Allison: I do remember that, actually. I never used it. But then again I tend to like eating at home rather than eating on campus. It’s nice to see the family occasionally.

LinuxWorld: Now the reason that you left Novell has to do with Microsoft and Novell setting up a deal to in effect pay Microsoft a patent royalty on copies of Linux sold.

Allison: That’s right. I mean essentially, it’s a patent cross license. They don’t call it that. They call it a covenant not to sue with customers. But when you boil it down, and you look at it really closely, it is a patent cross license. And section seven of the GPL specifically states that you can’t cut yourself a special patent cross license deal. Essentially it’s one of those situations where everyone has to hang together not separately, as it were. So, in other words, you can’t cut yourself special deals. And as I said, I wanted to like the deal. I had no objections. People were claiming, “oh, we just hate Microsoft.” And this is not true. I actually had no objections whatsoever to any of the parts of the deal other than this one. But this one just killed it for me — totally and completely I’m afraid.

LinuxWorld: Other parts of the deal — was there anything in there that was actually relevant to improving interoperability between –?

Allison: No, I’m sorry. I know what you’re going to ask. I mean that part I found amusing rather than anything else because the whole point of it was saying that, oh, we’re going to improve interoperability. But if you look at it closely, I think it covers some very specific federated directory things, which essentially very few people in the world actually care about.

What people really want is a second source Active Directory replacement. Let’s just say Novell was doing interesting work. That’s what Samba 4 is about, and they’re always doing a lot of interesting work there. But people who think that Microsoft will now give the information that is needed in order to do that to Novell just because of this deal are delusional. What you have to think about is that essentially Microsoft has been fighting tooth and nail not to give away any of this information to free software projects. So, they may think that just because they signed some patent cross licensing deal with Novell — even though Microsoft really, really wanted the patent cross licensing deal, just because they signed that, do you think they’re going to give away stuff that they essentially have fought absolutely and completely against the EU and paid billions of dollars in fines to avoid. So, no, that’s not going to happen.

LinuxWorld: One of the persistent rumors that’s going around is that certain large IT customers have already been paying Microsoft for patent licensing to cover their use of Linux, Samba and other free software projects. And the Novell deal — isn’t it just taking that and doing the same kind of thing wholesale?

Allison: Yes, that’s true, actually. I mean I have had people come up to me and essentially off the record admit that they had been threatened by Microsoft and had got patent cross license and had essentially taken out a license for Microsoft patents on the free software that they were using, which they then cannot redistribute. I think that would be the restriction. I would have to look quite carefully. So, essentially that’s not allowed. But they’re not telling anyone about it. They’re completely doing it off the record.

The problem with the Novell deal is — Novell gave Microsoft what Microsoft dearly wanted, which is a public admission that they think that Linux violates the Microsoft patent. So, that’s the difference between this and the sort of off-the-record quiet deals. This one is public. This one is Novell admitting, “

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