Following the controversial patent indemnification agreement between Microsoft and Novell last week, Microsoft representatives expressed interest in creating similar deals with other major Linux distributors. The patent agreement, which has become a source of much controversy within the open source community, is an unusual cross-licensing arrangement. Novell pays Microsoft a royalty fee, and in return the Redmond software giant agrees not to sue any of Novell’s customers.
Red Hat has been one of the most vocal critics of the deal, and has rejected Microsoft’s offer of a similar arrangement. Red Hat considers the agreement to be a form of intellectual property extortion and has condemned it as an “innovation tax” that could potentially “isolate communities or limit upstream adoption.” Citing its own prior patent pledge and its participation in the Open Invention Network, Red Hat feels that Microsoft’s patent agreement is unnecessary and could potentially be detrimental to the open source community community.
Microsoft has responded to Red Hat’s position by evaluating the possibility of providing its own patent indemnification service for Red Hat customers. Red Hat’s position on the issue is unsurprising, and I doubt that Microsoft will get very far trying to provide commercial patent indemnification services for Red Hat customers. Red Hat is nothing if not pedantically careful about what components are included in its software. Red Hat’s enterprise Linux distribution, for instance, doesn’t include support for many common Microsoft technologies like NTFS, and Red Hat has also refused to ship Mono, the increasingly popular open source .NET implementation.
The deal between Microsoft and Novell has little to do with patents and a lot more to do with consumer demand for virtualization. The patent agreements were just an added bonus, perhaps intended to put pressure on other Linux distributors. It is likely that Microsoft’s newfound interest in providing patent indemnification to Red Hat customers is just another tactic to try to convince Red Hat to come to the table on Microsoft’s terms. Red Hat and its customers don’t particularly want or need Microsoft indemnification, and Red Hat can’t risk validating Microsoft’s claims and fueling community angst by accepting the deal. Even though there isn’t really any tangible evidence that Novell’s agreement with Microsoft will have a detrimental impact on Novell or the open source community, the negative perception created by such an agreement is well worth avoiding for a company like Red Hat.