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Analysis By agreeing to license Microsoft's intellectual property, SuSE distributor Novell has created a potentially fatal division in what's called F/OSS, the Free/Open Source Software movement. What has Novell done, and why is it so potentially damaging?

Free Software advocates have always insisted that "free" and "open" were two movements loosely aligned, and that the Johnny Come Lately "open source" term was just a media-friendly marketing moniker. The "open source" lobby replied with some annoyance that this was an unimportant semantic issue.

Now, however, that distinction is painfully apparent, and Microsoft is exploiting it to the full.

Important parts of Linux are based on free software, including the kernel and the tool chain. Free software adheres to four simple principles: the freedom to run the software as you wish; to study and change the software as you wish; to redistribute copies as you wish; and to redistribute modified copies as you wish. These are enshrined in the GPL, but one section in particular, Section 7, is designed to protect software developers who want to uphold these principles. It's designed to prevent the distribution of patent encumbered code.

By contrast, this isn't something that all "open source" advocates have felt worth is going to the stake for. Open source is a superior development methodology, and to assure its success one may need to deal with the devil. Just as some open source companies have felt comfortable linking to, and distributing closed source code, other have been able to license patent-encumbered code without the qualms of free software developers. It's simply a question of expediency.

It was always naive to think that Microsoft wouldn't recognize the difference in the two approaches, and even more naive to think that it wouldn't exploit the difference. Now it has.

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