This is my obligatory post on the Novell Microsoft patent covenant. I wasn’t going to comment on it, but there’s a tie-in with another issue I was about to post about, so here goes:
First, as a user of SuSE since October 1998 (version 5.3) I know their product well, and have great respect for the SuSE development team. They are a great bunch of coders, who have an attention to quality and a dedication that I don’t think anyone matches. So, I think Novell got a heck of a deal when they bought SuSE. That’s why I have Novell on my stock picks on my Predictions for the year 2007 post. The aesthetics of their distro was always a bit out ahead of the competition. I have been extremely happy with their YaST Set-up tool, which has been released under the GPL recently.
My ambivalence in trying to punish the SuSE distro itself for Novell’s actions is summed up best of all by Ladislav Bodnar over at Distrowatch:
While Novell continues to endure the wrath of the open source community, spare a thought for the developers of openSUSE. Since this highly popular distribution is still largely developed in Germany where the original SuSE Linux was born, it is quite likely that the deal caught its core developers by surprise just as much as it shocked the rest of the Linux world. So far, however, there is no indication of any drastic changes affecting the openSUSE distribution. The project has just released the second beta of openSUSE 10.2 and is on target for the December 7th final release.
If you make a decision to boycott Novell’s products, should that include the openSUSE distribution? Although it might seem acceptable as a way to punish Novell for its part in the controversial deal, please remember that by refusing to install and use openSUSE, you’ll be also punishing the project’s innocent developers who continue to produce what they believe is the best Linux distribution on the market and whose only crime is that they happen to be on Novell’s payroll. Unless they themselves call for boycotting the project or decide to walk away from it, DistroWatch would argue that it is OK to continue using the distribution and supporting the project as before. For more information about the impact of the unpopular deal on openSUSE, please read this web log post by Andreas Jaeger, the distribution’s release manager.
The core of this deal is that Microsoft wants to introduce the threat of Patent litigation against linux users/developers, while also seeking to get some representation within the open source community. In that respect, it is rather like the money that Microsoft pays to both the Republicans and the Democrats in each election cycle: they want to be represented in that community. But the community has already decided that software patents are bad, and that’s why the Directive on the Patenting of Computer Implemented Inventions didn’t pass in the E.U. last year.
Of course, Microsoft has it’s paid advocates out there, cheering on software patents in comments like this by Noel Le of PFF (a big funder of that organization is Microsoft) speaking of the Novell-Microsoft pact, says in response to a post over at TLF:
Still, there is substantial evidence patents represent the evolution of the software industry and provide benefits to those who obtain them..
And my response to this is:
That’s not the point. Patents may in fact benefit the holder, but not benefit the public at all. Recall Adam Smith:
The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.
This text is all quoted in Amartya Sen’s book Development as Freedom which makes the case that economic development and freedom are linked together at a very deep, inseparable level. He makes the important distinction between procedural freedoms (Freedoms of process, that most libertarians are concerned with) as well as substantive freedoms, such as the freedom from involuntary starvation, as from a famine. In doing so, he makes a great case for measuring both development and freedom using the same, as opposed to divided, metrics.
I would postulate that the same could be said for the software ecology, and that the freedom of code is another measure of the development of the code, giving the users substantive rights over the use of that code, instead of the mere procedural right to write their own code. In other words, in Microft’s definition of ‘freedom,’ people would have the right to write their own code from scratch and create their own free operating system. Of course no one would be able to, that is they would only have the procedural freedom, not the substantive freedom, to write their own OS. For those who support free software the substantive freedom to write, own and compile their own software is essential and all-important.
Opponents will certainly argue that this is a sloppy conflation of freedom with ability, and ultimately justice, but I don’t see that as the case; I have always seen freedom and justice linked. I won’t reprint Amartya Sen’s book here, except to note that he extensively lays out his rationale for the importance of substantive, as opposed to just procedural freedoms, in his book, Development as Freedom, particularly in his critique of libertarianism. A favorite quote of mine that is relevant to this whole process is MLK: “A threat to freedom anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The community has clearly responded to Novell and Microsoft that their (substantive) freedoms are important to them. Actions which could have had the effect of splitting the community will actually have the opposite of the intended affect. The community sees much more clearly the threats posed by Microsoft in particular and software patents in general, as a direct result of this ill-conceived deal. So Microsoft may have actually done much to strengthen GPL version 3, as noted over at Groklaw:
Well, it is going to. You can take that to the bank, and Novell has ensured not only that it will happen but that GPLv3 will have broader community support than it did before.
So, in the end I expect SuSE will weather the storm, and continue their tradition of excellence. In the mean time, I will continue using SuSE while criticizing the Microsoft-Novell deal. Of course, that is not all there is to criticize about SuSE:
1. Go back to YaST as the package manager.
2. What happened to the cool 3D surfaces that were on the box of each new release?
3. Please re-integrate the Microsoft fonts, I enjoyed using Microsoft work product on my linux box.
4. Get the fonts and sizing of blackbox back to the elegant state they were in in the 7.0 through 8.2 series–the fonts are too big now. (Of course those who use blackbox are probably very small in number)
&, most importantly of all:
5. Bring back the small u in SuSE. What’s with the SUSE–everyone knows it’s SuSE!
And if they don’t do the above, someone else will. In any case, SuSE can’t stop anyone from doing so if they desire. That’s why it’s called FREE software. I like my ‘u’s small, thank you very much.
And on that idea of freedom, I’d like to end with the concluding sentence of Adam Smith’s paragraph above, not included in Sen’s book, just so we can remember what the goals of a monopolist, such as Microsoft, are:
It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.
~~~N.B.: E.F. extensively updated and revised this post on 18 Nov. 2006 (Octidi 28 Brumaire Year 215) ~~~