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Tuesday, 28 November 2006 03:35

RMS: No plain sailing for Novell

The Novell-Microsoft deal is set to come up against hurdles next year with the head of the Free Software Foundation, Richard M. Stallman, confirming that the organisation would use the terms of the next version of the General Public Licence to prevent Novell from using FSF-copyrighted software.

The licence, referred to as GPLv3, is scheduled to come into effect in March next year. There have been objections to the new licence from those in the open source camp, but the FSF, while admitting that the draft is not yet finalised, is unlikely to compromise on key changes from the existing licence, the very changes that are the major sticking points between the two camps.

While the terms free software and open source are often used as synonyms, there are fundamental differences - in order for software to meet the definition of "free", the FSF says it should provide four freedoms - freedom to run the program for any purpose; to study the source code and then change it if one wishes; helping one's neighbour and rights of distribution.

Stallman said the FSF would have no hesitation in using GPLv3 to nobble the deal. "Definitely! This deal is a threat to the freedom of the free software community, because its effect is to make GPL-covered software non-free in practical terms," he said.

There have already been concerns expressed that the deal violates section 7 of the existing GPL, version 2. The FSF's chief legal eagle, Eben Moglen, told CNET News earlier this month that if one made an agreement which required the payment of a royalty for the right to distribute GPL software, then it could not be distributed under the GPL. He said section 7 of the GPL made it obligatory for one to have, and also give everybody else, the right to freely distribute software without needing any additional permissions.

GPLv3 will insist that if someone sells a software binary then, since he or she is also required to provide the source, along with that comes a requirement to provide whatever it takes to authorise a recompiled version to run.

Stallman, who founded the FSF in 1984, said: "The deal creates a situation where Novell can distribute certain ostensibly free software, software whose license says that everyone else is free to redistribute it, but everyone else is systematically intimidated from doing so."

Among the software which is copyrighted by the FSF is the GNU C library, an essential part of every GNU/Linux distribution. Were Stallman to go ahead with his threat, then Novell would be stuck with old versions of all FSF-copyrighted software; the option of developing such software on one's own is out of the question.

"Software patents are dangerous to all software developers; they are an injustice," Stallman said. "In countries that have the foolish policy of allowing software patents, patent holders can use them to suppress a free program (or any program) entirely."

He said this method was "a blunt weapon" that was often hard to employ, and would not directly get the patent holders anything. "If patent holders can use their patents to corrupt distributors one by one, making the program non-free instead of suppressing it, they can more easily attack our freedom. That is what we will prevent."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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