When Microsoft and Novell work together where does software freedom go?

Miguel de Icaza wrote about the Novell-Microsoft deal and quoted a number of interesting points in his post for free software users.

The webcast is not available in any form free software users can play without installing something proprietary. Adobe Flash requires a proprietary plug-in (although work to fix this continues) and Windows Media requires Microsoft Windows and a proprietary program. If you can view either in a free software OS today it’s because you’ve installed proprietary software to do that job.

Quoting the Microsoft-Novell Q&A:

Under a patent cooperation agreement, Microsoft and Novell provide patent coverage for each others customers, giving customers peace of mind regarding patent issues.

Q: What does the patent agreement cover with regard to Mono and OpenOffice?

Yes, under the patent agreement, customers will receive coverage for Mono, Samba, and OpenOffice as well as .NET and Windows Server. All of these technologies will be improved upon during the five years of the agreement and there are some limits on the coverage that would be provided for future technologies added to these offerings. The collaboration framework we have put in place allows us to work on complex subjects such as this where intellectual property and innovation are important parts of the conversation.

In other words, most free software users get no coverage under this deal because they’re not Novell customers and they’re not Microsoft customers. What do the minority get here? Not much. Microsoft/Novell customers can’t spread their coverage as they spread the software. The agreement is incompatible with free software, like many other patent licenses are including Fraunhofer’s MP3 license. Microsoft and Novell are asking you to think of yourself instead of your community.

The specific mention of Mono, Samba, and OpenOffice.org tells us what programs’ functionality are in Microsoft’s sights for future patent litigation. This litigation can cover use as well as development because you are using patented algorithms merely by running patent-encumbered programs. In other words, merely by running these programs one becomes liable to lose a patent infringement lawsuit. Before you consider ditching free software, keep in mind that this is only Microsoft’s view of their patents. They can be wrong.

The “conversation” has nothing to do with “intellectual property” or “innovation” (which is often used to distract you from talking about your freedoms as a computer user). The subject at hand already has a name—software patents—and that name reminds us of previous conversations where we agree to work to abolish them.