ACT Warns of Legal Risk with Latest GPL Draft

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-04-05 Print this article Print

Patent-related proposed amendments to the license could possibly do more harm than good by "selectively overreaching" for third-party patent rights, an ACT lawyer says.

The third discussion draft of the GNU General Public License Version 3, particularly the provisions designed to block patent cooperation agreements like the one between Novell and Microsoft, could potentially expose those developing and using the license to legal risk. So says Richard Wilder, an attorney at Sidley Austin and the intellectual property counsel for ACT, the Association for Competitive Technology, which has been one of the most vocal critics of the recently released third draft. Novells CEO says he has no regrets about the deal with Microsoft. Read more here.
Wilder, asked by ACT to give his analysis of the new draft, said the newly added portions designed to block patent cooperation agreements like the one between Novell and Microsoft were included "because they give some Linux users the benefit of a patent covenant not to sue, but not to the extent that the drafters would ideally like," Wilder said in an analysis titled "GPLv3: The Legal Risks of Overreaching for Third-Party Patent Rights," now posted on ACTs Web site.
Wilder advised that "those participating in the drafting and consultation process, or that plan to use GPLv3 once it is issued, should give careful consideration to whether such amendments do more harm than good by selectively overreaching for third-party patent rights." But ACT, a Washington-based technology lobby group whose membership includes large companies like eBay, Oracle, Orbitz and VeriSign, and which was founded in 1998 in response to the Microsoft antitrust case, is largely dismissed by those in the open-source community as nothing more than a lobby group for the interests of Microsoft and those other large corporations. Mark Blafkin, ACTs vice president for public affairs, noted to eWEEK that its membership also included some 3,000 small and midsize technology firms from around the world. While the Free Software Foundation, in Boston, could not be immediately reached for comment and a spokesperson for Novell declined to comment, Richard Stallman, president of the FSF and principal author of the GPL, has said the license is designed to ensure that all users of a program receive the four essential freedoms that define free software. "The recent patent agreement between Microsoft and Novell aims to undermine these freedoms. In this draft we have worked hard to prevent such deals from making a mockery of free software," he said when the draft was released. Read more here about how the latest draft of the GPL 3 has come under fire. While Horacio Gutierrez, vice president of intellectual property and licensing for Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash., has said he is pleased that the deal with Novell has been "grandfathered" into the latest draft, he is unhappy that the license aims to prevent similar future agreements. "We note that the draft of the GPLv3 does not tear down the bridge Microsoft and Novell have built for their customers. It is unfortunate, however, that the FSF is attempting to use the GPLv3 to prevent future collaboration among industry leaders to benefit customers," he has said. Novell, based in Waltham, Mass., has also welcomed the fact that there is nothing in the latest draft of the license that inhibits its ability to include GPL3 technologies in SUSE Linux Enterprise, OpenSUSE and other Novell open-source offerings, now or in the future. But the company has also acknowledged the reality that this could change by the time the final version of the license is released, expected to be late in the summer of 2007 at the earliest. "If the final version of the GPL3 does potentially impact the agreement we have with Microsoft, well address that with Microsoft," spokesperson Bruce Lowry said. Could there be a conflict between the Free Software Foundation and Novell? Click here to read more. Wilder contends that, at some point, efforts to block patent licenses that were legally entered into and fully consistent with contract law, as well as the intellectual property laws enacted by Congress, "begin to expose those developing and agreeing to GPLv3 to potential defenses and counterclaims." Efforts by non-parties to force or induce a party to abrogate a validly entered-into contract or forego entering into a prospective contract can give rise to a cause of action for tortious interference, he said. Tortious interference occurs when a person intentionally damages the plaintiffs contractual or other business relationships. Is the GPLv3 dead on arrival? Click here to read more. Also, concerted agreements among competing providers of Linux software and associated services to refuse to enter into license agreements with a patent holder, or to refuse to supply Linux software as punishment for any company that does so, can give rise to antitrust liability under a group boycott theory, Wilder said. In addition, efforts to use copyrights in order to control subject matter such as patent rights, which are outside the scope of statutory copyrights, could give rise to claims for copyright misuse that would block all enforcement of such copyrights until the misuse is purged, he said. Wilder also argued in another analysis titled "Legal Analysis: GPLv3 Is a Contract and Why It Matters" that the "threat" of the recent cooperation agreement between Novell and Microsoft, and other agreements like it, is the covenant by Microsoft not to assert its patent rights against customers who have purchased SUSE Linux Enterprise Server or other covered products from Novell. The patent issue has been a contentious one throughout the GPLv3 drafting process. Click here to read more. "The real concern, however, is that Novell and Microsoft have found a way to build bridges between the two worlds of open-source and proprietary software. This was a bridge too far for the FSF," Wilder said. ACT executive director Morgan Reed also weighed in with a blog posting summarizing that analysis. The FSF had drafted a new paragraph to require the automatic grant of a patent license to all recipients of a covered work if they "convey, or propagate by procuring conveyance of, a covered work," he said. "But the flaw in this provision is significant," Reed said, noting that this is a contract term, not a license term. "Because Microsoft and companies like them are not parties to the contract, they are not bound by it. What that means is that a non-participant is now part of the agreement; we have transcended a license and moved into the realm of contracts. The third party is not being given any rights, only obligations. Obligations that they havent agreed to assume," he said. Some top Linux developers have warned that GPLv3 could kill open source. To read more, click here. "The case law on software licensing has not eroded the importance of assent in contract formation. Mutual assent is the bedrock of any agreement to which the law will give force," Reed concluded. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.
Peter Galli has been a financial/technology reporter for 12 years at leading publications in South Africa, the UK and the US. He has been Investment Editor of South Africa's Business Day Newspaper, the sister publication of the Financial Times of London.

He was also Group Financial Communications Manager for First National Bank, the second largest banking group in South Africa before moving on to become Executive News Editor of Business Report, the largest daily financial newspaper in South Africa, owned by the global Independent Newspapers group.

He was responsible for a national reporting team of 20 based in four bureaus. He also edited and contributed to its weekly technology page, and launched a financial and technology radio service supplying daily news bulletins to the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which were then distributed to some 50 radio stations across the country.

He was then transferred to San Francisco as Business Report's U.S. Correspondent to cover Silicon Valley, trade and finance between the US, Europe and emerging markets like South Africa. After serving that role for more than two years, he joined eWeek as a Senior Editor, covering software platforms in August 2000.

He has comprehensively covered Microsoft and its Windows and .Net platforms, as well as the many legal challenges it has faced. He has also focused on Sun Microsystems and its Solaris operating environment, Java and Unix offerings. He covers developments in the open source community, particularly around the Linux kernel and the effects it will have on the enterprise.

He has written extensively about new products for the Linux and Unix platforms, the development of open standards and critically looked at the potential Linux has to offer an alternative operating system and platform to Windows, .Net and Unix-based solutions like Solaris.

His interviews with senior industry executives include Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Linus Torvalds, the original developer of the Linux operating system, Sun CEO Scot McNealy, and Bill Zeitler, a senior vice president at IBM.

For numerous examples of his writing you can search under his name at the eWEEK Website at


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