Earlier this month, Microsoft and Novell inked a wide-ranging agreement through at least the year 2012, with the goal of making Microsoft’s Windows and Novell’s SUSE Linux operating systems work together better. Part of the agreement involves Microsoft and Novell cross-licensing patented technologies to each other.
Since the agreement, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and other company executives have ruffled feathers of the Linux community by asserting the Novell deal is tantamount to an admission that Linux infringes on Microsoft’s intellectual property. The implication may be chilling for businesses and enterprises which depend on Linux: the patent-licensing agreement would make Novell immune from any infringement suits brought against Linux by the deep-pocketed, litigation-hardened Redmond software giant, but the same can’t be said for other Linux providers, including Red Hat.
The Linux community has reacted with a mixture of amusement and effrontery, noting that Microsoft has been rumbling about Linux infringing on Microsoft intellectual property for some years now, but has yet to take even preliminary action against Linux for infringement. Linux has also faced a significant legal threat when SCO, IBM, and Novell became embroiled in a long-running suit over Unix-related copyrights; during that time, adoption of Linux was not impaired, but continued to grow.
Linux developers have been very careful path to keep clear of proprietary technologies which might encumber the free operating system. In an open letter to the Linux community, Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian strongly states that his company’s agreement with Microsoft is an not an admission—tacit or otherwise—that Linux contains Microsoft intellectual property: “Our agreement with Microsoft is in no way an acknowledgment that Linux infringes upon any Microsoft intellectual property. When we entered the patent cooperation agreement with Microsoft, Novell did not agree or admit that Linux or any other Novell offering violates Microsoft patents,” wrote Hovsepian. “Our stance on software patents is unchanged by the agreement with Microsoft.”
Microsoft, for its part, is sticking to its guns and says it and Novell have “agreed to disagree” on whether the deal means Linux infringes on Microsoft technology, while acknowledging “Novell is absolutely right in stating that it did not admit or acknowledge any patent problems as part of entering into the patent collaboration agreement.”
Industry analysis seems to agree that Microsoft’s sabre-rattling at the Linux community—in the form of vague mumblings about patent violations—is intended to put a scare into businesses and enterprises relying on Linux. This, in turn, would drive those Linux users towards Microsoft’s preferred Linux partner—Novell—and away from companies with whom Microsoft has no partnerships—like Red Hat. Microsoft no doubt hopes that, by introducing these users to Microsoft technologies by way of its partnership with Novell, these users may “switch” from Linux to Windows-based systems, or at the very least, they’d become customers of a Microsoft partner rather than businesses operating entirely outside Microsoft’s revenue stream.