Novell-Microsoft deal targeted by software group

BOSTON Mon Mar 26, 2007 11:06pm EDT

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BOSTON (Reuters) - The non-profit group that owns rights to much of the Linux operating system says it will seek to undermine a controversial deal between Microsoft Corp. (MSFT.O) and Novell Inc. NOVL.O through a new software licensing agreement to be unveiled on Wednesday.

The two companies announced a business partnership in November that included a cross-patent protection agreement that some critics say implies Microsoft has legal rights to Linux, the cooperatively developed software that is gaining ground with corporate users.

"We need to make sure such deals don't make a mockery of the goals of free software," Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, said in an interview with Reuters late on Monday.

Free software, which is also known as open-source software, refers to computer programs that are available to the general public to be used, revised and shared. Proeducts from companies like Microsoft are considered proprietary and their code generally cannot be revised and shared.

While open-source software is free, it also has become big business. An industry of consultants and other services supports it, and corporations contribute heavily to open-source development.

Linux runs on more than 20 percent of global server computers, compared with well over 60 percent of such powerful machines running Windows, according to recent Gartner data.

Microsoft and Novell say their deal lets powerful server computers running Windows and Linux systems communicate better. They announced the deal in November as part of a broad sales, marketing and development partnership that brought Novell $348 million in upfront payments.

Members of the free software community attacked the patent deal, particularly an agreement by Microsoft not to sue Novell's Linux customers.

They say its existence implies that Microsoft holds patents it could one day claim are being infringed upon by Linux users.

The Free Software Foundation will seek to undermine the Microsoft-Novell patent deal by incorporating language that will accomplish that goal into the new license agreement that will cover rights to much of the code in Linux, Brown said.

Brown declined to discuss details of the changes in advance of publication of a draft of the agreement on Wednesday, though he said the foundation was committed to preventing Microsoft from claiming rights to Linux.

"They found a way to effectively proprietize free software by offering patent promises to Novell," Brown said. "Whenever a new method comes along to effectively turn free software into proprietary software, we will adjust the license."

The foundation will seek public comments on the draft for 60 days before finalizing the new license agreement, which will go into effect from June 26. It will only apply to upgrades to Linux operating system code controlled by the foundation that are made from that date, Brown said.

Novell will be able to continue to distribute its current Linux products without violating the new license. But financial analysts have said that it will need to upgrade that software to remain competitive with rivals such as Red Hat Inc. (RHT.N)

Novell spokesman Bruce Lowry declined to comment on the foundation's plan, saying he hadn't seen its draft. Microsoft also declined to comment before seeing the draft.

Linux is distributed under the terms of a license that was written in 1991, the General Public License version 2, or GPLv2. The new license will be known as GPLv3.

Novell and Red Hat make money selling Linux bundled with service contracts that include technical support along with regular maintenance and upgrades to their software.

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