The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has released the next-to-last rough draft of the GNU General Public License (GPL) v3, including alterations specifically designed to put a stop to future patent deals of the sort that Novell and Microsoft agreed to last year.
The latest draft also softened up some other intellectual property provisions, to the point where some who had previously opposed the licence - such as Linus Torvalds - were now taking a more positive view.
The Microsoft-Novell deal has caused sharp debate in the software world, and indeed even Novell and Microsoft have agreed to disagree about its meaning. Under the deal, the two companies agreed not to sue each other for patent infringement.
Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer has assured analysts that the deal means non-Novell Linux users now have "an undisclosed balance sheet liability" for their use of Microsoft intellectual property. Novell has said the deal means no such thing, and is mainly a good-natured interoperability agreement.
Following the deal, the FSF delayed its original timetable for the GPL v3 in order to insert provisions that might help stifle future such deals before they ever see the light of day. The result is two new provisions, one of which automatically extend no-sue protections to the users of the packages making up a product.
"The fourth paragraph deals with the most acute danger posed by discrimination among customers, by ensuring that any party who distributes others' GPL-covered programs, and makes promises of patent safety limited to some but not all recipients of copies of those specific programs, automatically extends its promises of patent safety to cover all recipients of all copies of the covered works," the FSF said in the documentation accompanying the draft licence.
In the case of Microsoft and Novell this would cover users of the packages which make up Novell's SuSE Linux distribution.
The other change says that vendors entering into such an arrangement may not distribute software licensed under the GPL v3, a measure which, if applied to Novell, could mean disaster for the company. Even though Linus Torvalds has leaned away from licensing the Linux kernel under the new licence, other GNU/Linux components could well make the switch.
For now, the licence includes a clause that lets Novell off the hook by including only deals announced after 28 March, 2007. The FSF has said it is open to removing that clause, but has said it believes the extension of patent protections is enough.
The latest draft will be followed by a 60-day period for comment, after which a final rough draft will be published. The final version is now due 30 days after that, on 26 June.