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Microsoft and Linux: Somebody Get Some Lawyers in Here

This story is starting to feel so much like a soap opera that we're going to have to start with a little back story before we get to the news of the week. So, here we go:

You remember the Microsoft-Novell SuSE Linux deal, right? There's no need to explain that one, we hope. You also remember how the Free Software Foundation, which controls the license that governs the use of Linux, wanted to do whatever it could to kill, or at least severely injure, the SuSE agreement. And you remember, too, that Microsoft claims that open source software violates more than 200 of its patents.

Great, so you're with us so far. Well, as we told you last week, the FSF has decided not to "punish" Novell for its Microsoft agreement. But it has written language into the latest -- and probably last -- draft of version three of its General Public License for Linux (the famous GPLv3) that would, the FSF hopes, essentially rid Microsoft of its power to hold patents over the open source world's head like some sort of sword of Damocles by forcing Redmond to extend patent protection to all Linux users, not just SuSE users.

That provision in GPL v3 would make Microsoft's Linux deals -- which are based on shaking down distributors of the open source operating system by getting them to pay for patent protection and thereby avoid potential lawsuits -- sort of useless (or so the FSF hopes -- although not everybody is so sure). And, yes, we said "deals," not deal, which leads us to the news of the week: Microsoft has agreed to another Linux patent pact.

This time, the distributor is Xandros, the name of which immediately makes us think of the late disco-era Olivia Newton John vehicle Xanadu. (What, that didn't come springing immediately to mind for you? We would have also accepted a reference to Xena: Warrior Princess or possibly even Xavier McDaniel.)

The Xandros deal could be far from being a paradise for either party, though, if the FSF gets its way and erases Microsoft's patent claims. If that were to happen, Xandros would have entered into a deal to protect itself from patent claims that Microsoft wouldn't even be able to make. Could that happen? We have absolutely no idea. That's for a gaggle of patent lawyers to decide.

In the meantime, though, we'll say what we've said all along: All of this legal battling, all of this saber rattling by Microsoft and obstinate anti-Microsoft behavior from the FSF (which, incidentally, seems to go way beyond patent fights), all of this lawyer play serves mainly to hurt partners and customers who just want to use Windows and Linux and have them work together. It also hurts the continued adoption of Linux in the enterprise (yes, we still maintain that such deals with Microsoft are helpful, even if they are basically "protection rackets.") Basically, IT managers and financial decision makers are going to think twice before adopting an operating system full of legal land mines. We're still hoping for some compromise -- and common sense -- from both sides of the argument. What we're expecting, though, is more FUD from everybody and possibly a legal battle.

But, hey, the whole thing does make for great theater, if you like daytime television soap operas. So, tune in next week (or, probably, later this week) for more Days of Our Linux.

Do you have a take on the latest wrinkle in the Microsoft-Linux saga? I'm reading, as always, at lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on June 05, 2007 at 11:54 AM