Searching for truth about Mono
We continue to explore the legal implications of building the GNU desktop using Mono. As readers may be aware, this Web site, among several others, has been a critic of Novell’s Mono for quite some time.
We are now aware, based on the assessment of the SFLC, that Novell’s Moonlight is a legal risk (or uncertainty at best). Fedora forbade it. The key worry though is that strategic direction gets changed to favour the Microsoft API in several places, which is akin to adopting or supporting Microsoft codecs. It gives a sworn enemy of libre software powers that can essentially eliminate the freedom of the desktop — for good.
It’s important to act upon this early, or else it might become irreversible, at least for important portions of the code pool.
The other day, Charles wrote a nice piece detailing the differences between Red Hat’s approach and Novell’s approach to handling of intellectual monopolies.
I have frequently expressed myself about the patent and business agreement between Novell and Microsoft.
Novell did precisely not sign a patent agreement with Microsoft debunking any claims or myths related to FOSS infringing Microsoft’s “intellectual property”. It implicitly did just the contrary: Microsoft and Novell were teaming up to “protect” Novell customers against patent claims made by…Microsoft.
The agreement was only covering Novell customers (not even OpenSuse users) and was at the same time contradicting the GPL (v2). Red Hat’s settlement does not seem to conflict with any version of the GPL as it places no burden or extra deeds on users and developers of GPLv3 software (More on that later).
There was no prior art, no litigation, and perhaps as important as the rest, the Novell-Microsoft agreement involved money. Lots of it . On the other hand, Red Hat received to my knowledge no payment for the settlement and as a future outcome, no strong incentive to do business with the plaintiffs and have its existing customers sign some dubious “software patent insurance”.
Contrary to what can be read here and there, the GPL v3 does not deny the existence of software patents. That would be stupid, as the GPL has been designed to live in a legal environment where such patent claims would be made against Free Software. What it does however is denying software patents the possibility to infringe on the users and developers’ freedom and ability to run, use, modify and redistribute software. If the software cannot be redistributed without some form of immunity in regard of software patents, then a poison pill option exists. Red Hat’s settlement does not apply here. What Red Hat did was “clean” patent busting: they demonstrated prior art first, and then essentially killed the patents by extending the immunity to those patents to anyone using the problematic software apps. That’s how historical it gets.
I am, just like many others, left not wholly satisfied by this. I am very happy of course, of the outcome of this lawsuit, but I know that the real issue at stake is software patents and that what will really put all these issues to rest, ultimately, shall be the end of software patents.
I've fully reviewed the archive now, and this is pretty much all the information I could find: 1. The decision to allow Mono to enter the tree seems to have been made arbitrarily by Red Hat, with no community consultation, and in spite of protests (including some by high profile Red Hat personnel - mostly expressed as a rejection of Mono before the announcement). 2. There has only ever been one public announcement on the subject, and that was made (with some dismay, it seems) by Tom Callaway: https://www.redhat.com/archives/fedora-extras-list/2006-January/msg00588.html 3. There has only ever been one, extremely reserved, explanation given for this decision, in a blog post by Greg DeKoenigsberg: "Business considerations that prevented certain Mono components from being included in Fedora previously have now been resolved." http://gregdek.livejournal.com/3597.html The specific nature of this resolution is not given. 4. There is precious little concrete information about precisely who made these arbitrary decisions that also affected the Fedora community distro, but as best as I can deduce, the key players seem to be Greg DeKoenigsberg (as above) and Christopher Blizzard, although it may be that these were simply the only people discussing it publicly: http://www.0xdeadbeef.com/weblog/?p=188 5. The nearest thing to an actual justification for this acceptance of Mono, is that the OIN offers a kind of Mexican Stand-Off protection to those who implement it: http://gregdek.livejournal.com/4008.html My final conclusion is that Fedora includes encumbered, non-Free software, that is covered by patents owned by Microsoft, and assured by a patent covenant that is not worth the (metaphorical) paper it's written on, since Moonlight, which is also covered by this same type of covenant by the same company, has recently been exposed by Groklaw as undistributable (I'm advised that PJ is currently investigating Mono as well). The announcement and justification for this inclusion is extremely sparse, and there has been almost no community consultation on the subject, either before or after the fact.
This hopefully sums up Red Hat’s (or Fedora in practice) decision to adopt Mono. More people should be aware of this. It invalidates Jeff Waugh’s “if Red Hat does it, then it’s OK” claim. No clear reasons seem to be given. Mark Shuttleworth’s defense of it seems to be the argument that a separate and greater threat exists, but that’s like blowing your toe because your entire foot might be in danger.
A few quick points ought to be added:
- Red Hat has been hiring top lawyers recently, not necessarily in preparation for anything, but Red Hat’s people have been negotiating in the back rooms with Microsoft for almost a year. Codecs, for instance, were negotiated, but Red Hat didn’t lose that fight. There were other such talks about intellectual monopolies that go approximately 2 years back.
- Technical exclusion using Novell’s deal (e.g. hypervisors) is not sufficient for Microsoft to maintain dominance. It needs software patents and ‘licensing’ too (Mono, Moonlight, etc). If Microsoft’s profit decline at the end of this quarter (again), then it’s likely to just get even more vicious.
- If the Debian Project was concerned enough about trademarks to create IceWeasel and Fedora is at least raising similar issues about the freedom values of Firefox (or deficiencies), how would they feel about Novell copyrights in Mono projects, let alone software patents?
It is our humble assessment that — in the long term at least — Novell and Microsoft will be the next SCO in the sense that they can use software patents rather than copyrights (a ‘stronger’ form of intellectual monopoly).
Novell claimed that it would not ever resort to this, but the company in its existing form crumbles while .NET developers are hired. Yesterday we saw the departure of a Novell vice president. An anonymous reader wrote to tell us: “Why is he leaving or was he asked to leave in light of the partner blunders of late who’s next watch and see if Ebzery gets the chop.”
Novell is a large company. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about its direction. █