By Annalee Newitz
I AM LIVING in bizarro business-deal universe. Microsoft and Novell, which distributes a version of SUSE Linux, have formed a partnership. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's notoriously anti-Linux CEO, announced the deal; he claimed it was because customers demanded it. But the open-source community is worried something else may be afoot.
PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak speculated last week that Microsoft was trying to do an end-run around free-software licensing, essentially breaking the GNU Public License (GPL) via legal loopholes. Then Linux Journal's Nicholas Petreley, speaking for a lot of disgruntled open sourcers, urged Linux users to migrate away from all Novell SUSE products over the next five years.
It's easy to understand why open-source and free-software advocates are up in arms. Members of these communities have worked for decades to build robust, free alternatives to proprietary, big-business software products. And Linux, one of the most successful free operating systems available, has openly challenged Microsoft's hegemony in countless ways.
Linux isn't just a good technological alternative to Windows. It's a symbol. This upstart, community-built operating system creates choice in a market where big players dominate. Plus everything about Linux is transparent, open and customizable. You can do whatever you want to your Linux operating system—rewrite the code, turn it into another piece of software, copy it a zillion times for your family and friends. There's only one rule: Don't break the GPL. So if you turn Linux into something else, that something else must also be licensed under the GPL.
Now that Microsoft and Novell are shacking up together at a joint research center, it feels as if we're only a few months away from a Microsoft Linux distribution. In fact, Microsoft has said it will officially recommend Novell SUSE Linux. Could Microsoft actually undermine the legal foundation of the GPL and create a form of Linux that cannot be modified or copied freely?
The answer is yes and no. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Jason Schultz says the deal doesn't threaten the legal status of the GPL. But he speculates that the products Microsoft and Novell have discussed creating—such as a software package that contains interoperable versions of Windows and Novell SUSE Linux—could make it very difficult for consumers to modify Novell Linux without also running into problems with Windows.
"This hybrid product could intermingle its Linux and Microsoft parts so that it could be hard to copy the open portions," he says. "What people should do is download Linux from somewhere else."
Schultz also points out something crucial about this deal: it's less a legal threat to Linux than it is a publicity threat. Microsoft's move is savvy marketing. The more it can confuse customers about what Linux is by attaching Windows products to it, the less name-recognition Linux will have on its own, and the fewer people will understand what free software and open source really mean.
Ballmer has been blabbing to anyone who will listen that he'd love to cut similar deals with other Linux distributors, like Red Hat. No matter what the legal implications of this deal turn out to be—Free Software Foundation attorney Eben Moglen was still analyzing it as of this writing—it's definitely a weird new stage in Microsoft's FUD war with Linux.
I think Microsoft is trying to muddy the waters just enough that consumers will stop recognizing the fundamental divide between Windows and Linux. We've seen this problem in the free-software community before, though in a far less insidious form.
When the phrase "open source" began gaining currency in the late 1990s, people often confused it with "free software," because many open-source projects are literally free (as in free beer). But there are dozens of open-source licenses, many of which permit people to create proprietary software out of the open software. Free software generally refers to programs released under the GPL, which is a very rigid license that permits no intermingling with proprietary works. As more people used open-source software, the popular media and public began to conflate free software and open source—much to free software inventor Richard Stallman's dismay.
I worry that this Microsoft-Novell deal has the potential to do the same thing to open-source software. The more Microsoft can absorb Linux, the fewer people will recognize the challenge Linux represents. Linux isn't just an alternative set of software tools. It's another mode of production—one that is more transparent and more sensitive to the public good. That's something we can't afford to lose.
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd who thinks that if Microsoft makes a software 'shim' that Linux developers should make a software 'shiv' and stick those bastards right in the gut.
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