The un-freeness of Linux

Thom blogged about Microsoft going into the offensive regarding IP and software patents against Linux and require tax money for using their technologies. I also believe that MS has legal ground to sue distros who ship with FAT32, SMB, Exchange, (winforms) Mono and what not.

But this is not the point of my blog post. Instead, I am trying to fast forward a few years in the future and visualize how the Linux scene would look like if Microsoft has made Novell-like deals with the 4-5 major Linux distros and has sued the smaller distros, or at least kindly required their IP to be removed from their distros. If that’s the case, we are left with the following: The 4-5 big distros ship their commercial versions of their distros with all MS tech in them, but for their free versions all that is removed. The completely free, hobbyist, distros are shipping with all that removed by default.

This begs the question, how useful these distros are then? Can a modern computer user live without being able to access his FAT32 mp3 player, or without having access to his SMB printer? I don’t think so. There will be some radicals who will push themselves to agree to live in this ordeal, but the majority of users will have two options: either buy a commercial Linux, or move to Win/OSX. Given how complicated package management is for normal users (even in Ubuntu), the majority of users will never find the correct libraries to install manually. Just as it happens today for other stuff, like Flash, Java and mp3. I have read countless blogs where newcomers just can’t figure out how to enable mp3 on their computers despite the also countless tutorials.

And here’s the kicker: I don’t think that this whole situation would be bad for Linux. Today, there are so many Linux distros, and much duplicated effort, that it actually hurts the Linux success in the consumer market. If MS will be the catalyst for fewer distros, and push consumers to actually buy distros rather than downloading the featureless free versions, that’s ultimately a good thing. Isn’t that what the Linux whinees always said, that the “Free” is as in freedom and not as in beer? Well, let’s see how they like it when they will have to shed $50 to get a new version of their distro every 6 months.

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Luis wrote on November 17th, 2006 at 10:43 AM PST:

Thanks God this situation wouldn’t be possible with the GPL license. Small distros would just have to derivate themselves from the big ones to make it even clearer that their GPL’ed code has the same protection as the one in the main distros.

GPL section 7:

“If, as a consequence of a court judgment or allegation of patent infringement or for any other reason (not limited to patent issues), conditions are imposed on you (whether by court order, agreement or otherwise) that contradict the conditions of this License, they do not excuse you from the conditions of this License. If you cannot distribute so as to satisfy simultaneously your obligations under this License and any other pertinent obligations, then as a consequence you may not distribute the Program at all. For example, if a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Program by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the Program.”

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Eugenia wrote on November 17th, 2006 at 10:55 AM PST:

A company “A” can make a special deal with a GPL’ed company “B” about something, and yet their deal does not automatically becomes a deal between the company “A” and all the other GPL companies. It does not work this way. GPL works the other way around instead.

Luis wrote on November 17th, 2006 at 11:32 AM PST:

But if I buy company B’s product (GPL’ed) and redistribute it, I can’t get sued because company B sold me a non-patented or royalty free product. If I get sued, I will sue company B for selling me patented or non-royalty free code while stating the contrary in the license.

That is, if company A sues someone who’s redistributing company B’s product, the result is like if it was suing company B, with whom it has an agreement not to sue.

However, I believe you look at the future in the wrong way. You think that soon everything will be illegal because of IP, patents, etc… while we’re heading towards a future where IP and patents will have to disappear (there’s no other way out and it’s just a matter of time that this happens).

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Eugenia wrote on November 17th, 2006 at 11:41 AM PST:

It is very possible to reuse existing code from Company B, but not have the same license agreement as the Company B has with Company B about this code. Just because Ubuntu uses Novell’s Mono, does not mean that it is indemnified like Novell is. This is true for either a sold or free copy of a code.

Tom wrote on November 18th, 2006 at 6:35 AM PST:

Your final paragraph is a bit confusing, so I hope you can clear it up for me.

First, do you have any examples of a pay-for Linux distribution being better than the “featureless” free ones? Second, I can’t think of anyone who would say that they are striving toward making Linux anything but making it free as in freedom AND beer.

Finally, “let’s see how they like … [spending] $50 to get a new version of their distro every 6 months” makes it sound as though it would be Linux developers’ faults if this happened, and that it would serve them right. How is this the case?

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Eugenia wrote on November 18th, 2006 at 6:58 AM PST:

For your first question: SuSE Linux is better than OpenSuSE. Mandriva commercial is better than Mandriva free.

For the second question, no, it’s not Linux developer’s fault. They just coded what they needed to. But I am wondering how most new linux users will feel if they will need to buy a distro instead of downloading a featureless version first.

moleskine wrote on November 18th, 2006 at 12:26 PM PST:

Quite a few people already pay for their Linux by, for example, buying SuSE so there is nothing new in this. Second, Microsoft see Linux as competition and their aim, surely, is to control it on their terms. This means commercial distros that charge and do things the Microsoft way (per seat licensing, etc.) as a result of legal threats and non-commercial distros that are pushed off into a semi-useless hobbyist’s corner. It’s rather hard to see this as good news, isn’t it? Left to its own devices, the Linux market would eventually produce 2-3 leaders anyway. Arguably, in Red Hat, SuSE and Debian/Ubuntu, it already has.

Richard wrote on November 27th, 2006 at 1:19 AM PST:

I think there is one BIG issue that you are overlooking here, that is, the people that actually write all the free software. Considering I am a free software developer myself, I won’t be very happy to see a world where everyone has to pay for his Linux Version of choice. And I will do whatever is neccessary to prevent this situation.

Maybe the commercial distros can do without the hobbyists….. for a while.


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