Who's playing whom?

It's entirely possible that Novell is about to get fleeced, and that GNU/Linux will take a hit in the process, and Microsoft has a history of playing the Big Bad. But are we really being smart to always assume that Microsoft will win every battle it enters?

Novell lawyers pulled some fairly smooth legal judo against SCO only a few months ago. I think it might be a little early to call a winner. Eben Moglen and some other observers have noted the peculiar and difficult to predict consequences of the kind of deal that is being reported.

Somebody has made a serious mistake here, but are we really so sure it's Novell? Microsoft is arrogant and has always had difficulty understanding the free software community (first of all, that it is a community and that communities aren't the same as companies). It's easy from the press releases to see what Microsoft thinks it will get out of this deal.

But what does Novell expect? Why would it make such a "stupid" move? I distrust stupidity like that, coming from educated people who've had enough direct exposure to learn how these things work. I believe Microsoft's blindspot about the GPL and the decentralized nature of GNU/Linux development, because they don't work that way. But Novell has been swallowing the SUSE distribution and I find it hard to believe that management isn't learning.

Maybe they were arrogant too, and did something dumb. But it seems at least equally possible that this is a ploy by Novell. I won't pretend to understand what they could be attempting, or what the odds of success are.

But I do know several factors that ought to be considered:

  • Whether a "covenant not to sue" is really not a "license", when it creates all the trappings of one (royalties, exclusivity, etc), is deeply questionable
  • If it is a license, then Novell is risking its own right to distribute GNU and Linux (in fact, it might be threatening everyone's right to)
  • Right now, there is an enormous amount of controversy surrounding the ethics and legality of software patents in principle. Any big case could have powerful political consequences, especially in Europe
  • Whatever the negative consequences of this deal, it's bringing Linux into the mainstream press
  • Microsoft gets a lot out of continued threat of patent lawsuits, but actually suing anybody could be disastrous for them
  • IBM is spending a lot on the SCO case, which appears to be resolving itself finally
  • IBM isn't the only deep-pocketed company to be deeply invested in GNU/Linux

I won't try to predict what will happen. It's certainly possible that Novell is just being dumb and falling for Microsoft's trap, but surely there's some chance that Microsoft is finally going to be the one left holding the bag this time around.


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