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Novell counters community, Microsoft FUD


Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian today issued an “Open Letter to the Community from Novell,” in which he defends his company’s recent accord with Microsoft, and challenges recent statements made by Microsoft on the topic of Linux and patents.

In the weeks since Novell and Microsoft announced this agreement, many open-source figures have objected strongly to it. In particular, the agreement on patents has drawn the ire of open-source programmers, like The Samba Group; open-source supporters such as Pamela Jones, editor of Groklaw; and rival Linux distributors such as Red Hat.

Some open-source figures have defended Novell’s move, but for the most part the open-source community has rejected the move as being potentially very harmful to Linux.

Hovsepian opens his letter by reminding the community that the patent deal was only part of the agreement. He states that Novell and Microsoft have also agreed to work to improve Linux and Windows interoperability, and that Microsoft will distribute “more than 350,000 subscriptions for SUSE Linux Enterprise to the Windows customer base over a five-year period. This agreement is at the heart of what IT users demand — to deploy both Linux and Windows, and to have them work well together — and many companies have spoken out in support of this new cooperation.”

“Customers told us that they wanted Linux and Windows to work together in their data centers, and so we agreed to develop new technologies and standards in server management, virtualization and document file format compatibility,” Hovsepian continued.

All this means that not only Novell but, “The Linux community will benefit from the creation and release of the open source code to improve Linux’s interoperability with Windows that will result from this agreement.”

Then, he moved to the meat of the matter. “Microsoft asked that we cooperate on patents as well, and so a patent cooperation agreement was included as a part of the deal. In this agreement, Novell and Microsoft each promise not to sue the other’s customers for patent infringement. The intended effect of this agreement was to give our joint customers peace of mind that they have the full support of the other company for their IT activities. Novell has a significant patent portfolio, and in reflection of this fact, the agreement we signed shows the overwhelming balance of payments being from Microsoft to Novell.”

In the patent cooperation section of the companies’ contract, Microsoft agreed to make an up-front net payment to Novell of $108 million, and Novell will make ongoing payments totaling at least $40 million over five years to Microsoft. The exact amount will be based on percentages of Novell’s Open Platform Solutions and Open Enterprise Server revenues.

Moving on, Hovsepian said, “Since our announcement, some parties have spoken about this patent agreement in a damaging way, and with a perspective that we do not share. We strongly challenge those statements.”

First, Hovsepian makes it clear that he disagrees “with the recent statements made by Microsoft on the topic of Linux and patents.”

For example, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer recently said that Microsoft made the deal with Novell because Linux “uses our intellectual property” and Microsoft wanted to “get the appropriate economic return for our shareholders from our innovation.”

In his open letter Hovsepian strongly disagrees with Ballmer, stating, “Our agreement with Microsoft is in no way an acknowledgment that Linux infringes upon any Microsoft intellectual property. To claim otherwise is to further sow fear, uncertainty and doubt, and does not offer a fair basis for competition. 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. We strongly object to the usage of our agreement to suggest that members of the Linux community owe Microsoft any remunerations.”

He then continued, “Our stance on software patents is unchanged by the agreement with Microsoft. We want to remind the community of Novell’s commitment to, and prior actions in support of, furthering the interests of Linux and open source, and creating an environment of free and open innovation. We have a strong patent portfolio and we have leveraged that portfolio for the benefit of the open source community.”

He then lists:

* We have stated our commitment to use our own software patents to protect open source technologies.

* We have spoken out against EU legislation that would liberalize the standards for granting software patents.

* We offer indemnification to our Linux customers accused of intellectual property infringement.

* We have teamed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and other industry leaders to reduce the issuance of “bad patents” in the software area [story].

* In 2005, we co-founded Open Invention Network (“OIN”), “an intellectual property company that was formed to promote Linux by using patents to create a collaborative environment.” (See Novell’s substantial contributions to OIN were made to benefit not only ourselves, but also other Linux vendors, distributors and developers, and anyone else willing to commit not to assert their patents against Linux.

Hovsepian closed with, “We wish to be extremely clear that Novell is committed to protecting, preserving and promoting freedom for free and open source software. We recognize that the community of open source developers is essential to all our activities in Linux, and we welcome dialog with the community as to how we can continue to work together toward these common goals.”

Will this be enough to calm the waters? Perhaps not, but if nothing else, Novell has made it clear that it is not going to stand quietly by while Microsoft makes vague intellectual property claims about Linux.

A version of this story first appeared in Linux-Watch.

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