The Community Shrugged

by on November 20, 2006 · 46 comments

Don Marti makes a good point about the enforcibility of the GPL in the face of deals like the Microsoft/Novell pact:

The GPL is not a top-down EULA. It’s a legal “codification” of a set of cooperation and information-sharing norms, which includes an agreed mutual defense policy on patents. So whether or not the Microsoft/Novell deal is a millimeter below or a millimeter above the letter of the law isn’t that big of a deal

Siobhán O’Mahony wrote, “Informal enforcement of license terms draws upon the normative roots of the license and occurs primarily through on-line public forums. The GPL codifies a strong norm of reciprocity that has long been an important part of the programming culture…. In the eyes of both legal scholars and informants, the GPL’s strength stems not necessarily from its legality, but from the public collective opinion of community members.”

Novell is holding an IRC meeting about the deal (via Novell’s “inner circle”, which negotiated the separate peace, has to sell the rest of its stakeholders on discarding the cooperation norms under which they had been working in favor of a “weasel words” interpretation of the letter of a license. I don’t see how they can pull this off.

Novell doesn’t just have to worry about losing in court and being forced to stop distributing its version of Linux. The more serious threat may be that they’ll burn their bridges with the wider Linux community.

An open source operating system like Linux consists of hundreds of components, each of which is typically maintained by a different group of developers. If those developers all decided to stop responding to emails, stop accepting bug fixes, and stop sharing new versions on a timely basis, etc, they would have to shoulder a much bigger part of the burden of developing and supporting their software.

Ayn Rand’s most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, features a group of industrialists who get tired of society living parasitically off of their creative efforts and they go on strike, moving to a secluded valley in Colorado called Galt’s Gulch. In Rand’s world, this leads to the American economy collapsing under the weight of its incompetence. If the open source community perceives Novell as breaking the social contract implicit in the GPL, the open source community may decide to steal a page out of Rand’s playbook and go on strike against Novell’s parasitism.

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