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Editor's Note: Which Road To Take?

Dec 08, 2006, 23:30 (27 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

It could be just me, but why does the thought of adding a clause to the GPL 3 just to keep deals like the Microsoft-Novell collaboration from happening seem vaguely... wrong?

I think what's making me uncomfortable is something I recall from Government class in high school--that to create a law against one person or group in the US is supposed to be unconstitutional. Granted, writing a license like GPL 3 is not like writing a law, because unlike a law, people have a choice to use software licensed under GPL 3 or not. It's not universally applied to users of any software, so it can be avoided, if the user so chooses.

So why, deep in the corners of my brain, does this just feel bad?

I understand the potential dangers posed by a litigious Microsoft aiming their patent portfolio against commercial open source software vendors. I really do, and I am not advocating that the business and development communities should sit placidly on their hands and wait for said portfolio to go off. But is adjusting the new GPL 3, already seen by some in and outside of the community as a non-starter, really the answer?

I honestly don't know.

I don't usually see myself as indecisive, but I am of two minds on this topic. On one side, I have a simple motto, directed at Redmond: prove it. Bring it. Raise, call, and show that hand. Personally, I don't think you have anything, because if you did you would have destroyed Linux long before it became a multi-billion--with a B--dollar industry. (Unless Microsoft blew Linux off like they blew off the Internet until the late 1990s.) And I am not alone in the assessment. Right after making his comments regarding potential patent infringement, the IT industry basically said the same thing to Ballmer: put up or shut up. The outcome of a negated patent threat is clear: Windows and Linux would find themselves competing on the basis of cost and technology, instead of possible legal threats. In such a competition, Microsoft would find itself at a disadvantage.

This approach, then, is to ignore the legal stuff and build better software.

But, on the other side, we are living with the vague innuendo put out there by Microsoft and some have seen it necessary to compete with Microsoft on that level. If Microsoft gets litigious, then Linux will respond in kind--adjusting its licenses to actively prevent legal battles. If Novell wants to stretch the GPL 2 to its limits, then make it impossible to do so with the GPL 3 and let them be hoist on their own petards.

Actively negating legal attacks is the other approach that some have chosen.

Which is correct?

Clearly, the latter is making me edgy, and I find myself asking is it because of my disinclination away from politics? Or is something genuinely wrong with the legal approach?

One facet of the change-the-GPL argument that I don't agree with is the assertion by some that Microsoft and other corporate types are out to kill the GPL altogether. I don't buy this argument, because as I've written before, I think that it's actually commercial Linux and open source software products--which takes money directly out of proprietary vendors' wallets--that are the real targets. From my perspective, making this about the license is the wrong approach, because efforts are being deflected away from the arenas where OSS can readily win. It's distracting.

The only thing that keeps me from outright decrying the GPL 3 alterations as a bad idea is the notion that maybe, just maybe, its is time to draw the line in the sand. It's been too easy in the past to label the position of the Free Software Foundation as "reactionary" and "zealous." Maybe, when all is said and done, they have a point and it will take a legal stand against proprietary vendors to give OSS the room it needs to thrive.

One thing I do know, as we all negotiate the path of our choice: care must be taken to avoid overreacting to events as they happen. I have talked to a number of people who have expressed surprise at the vehemence and swiftness that people have chosen sides. You are either for Novell or against Novell these days, and any one on the other side is the Enemy.

People are having trouble expressing that they are all for Linux and open source--a divisiveness that is very likely not escaping the notice of the proprietary vendors.