Microsoft exec talks patent politics

Summary:Jerry Fishenden, Microsoft's UK NTO, explains the company's position on patents and open source, and calls for more accountability in the IT industry

Microsoft's evolving relationship with the open-source community is an object of fascination for many, including some surprised Microsoft employees. ZDNet.co.uk was told at a recent Microsoft event that "strange winds of change are blowing through Redmond" when it comes to the software giant's attitudes to open source and interoperability./>

Many in the open-source community remain sceptical about Microsoft's overtures, believing them to be filled with inherent contradictions, such as Microsoft making patent-infringement allegations but also striking a deal with a vendor such as Novell.

Microsoft's UK national technology officer, Jerry Fishenden, talked to ZDNet.co.uk about the necessity of Microsoft specifying exactly which patents Linux has allegedly broken, as well as clarifying its attitude to open-source standards.

Fishenden, the software giant's lead UK technology advisor, also talked to ZDNet.co.uk about the need for a UK security breach disclosure law, and the need for a professional body that could strike off incompetent IT professionals.

Q: With the Microsoft allegations of 235 patent violations by open-source vendors, some in the open-source community are saying this is Microsoft trying to get open-source vendors to use Microsoft licences.
A: It depends where you come from on intellectual property really. As someone who is also a writer, I'm always quite intrigued by the idea that, if I write something, I shouldn't have some sort of rights over what I've produced, and that other people can go off and make money off the back of my creative work. I'm not entirely sure what people are asking — that Microsoft shouldn't protect its intellectual property?

I think it's the way that Microsoft has stated that 235 patents have been broken, then refused to specify which patents have been broken, and then said that it isn't going to litigate for now. It's not simply a question of protecting intellectual property.
Yes, well we need to be specific about intellectual property and where the [Linux] violations are, I guess.

What's your reaction to the observation that Microsoft, on the one hand, has to appear to be enforcing its intellectual property for the stakeholders but, on the other hand, is making overtures to the open-source community? Are those two positions irreconcilable?
I don't think so. If you look at all the big companies supporting open source and proprietary — IBM, for example, whose software business grew quite a lot last year based on its proprietary product portfolio — IBM doesn't seem to have a problem with doing both, Sun doesn't have a problem with doing both. I think most companies have that spectrum of open source being pooled and developed in the community, then there's other stuff that's proprietary, and ownership is retained. Microsoft pays well over $1bn [£503m] a year to license other people's intellectual property. The general preference in the industry is to license. That seems to me to be the way most people respect intellectual property.

Some in the open-source community have concerns about Microsoft and interoperability, specifically Microsoft's position on open standards. Microsoft talks about choice between Open XML and other open standards like ODF, but surely you build products on top of a standard and compete at product level, rather than competing at a standards level?
If standards meant that the first standard approved was the only one that you could use, then how would that differ from patents? You're effectively saying this has now got a monopoly on how you will do things.

Well no, not really, because surely the standard is just a specification document that says how a product can be interoperable?
But what if that standard doesn't do what you need it to do? If you take Open XML for example...

Topics: Apps, Software Development

About

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com, writing about all manner of security and open-source issues.Tom had various jobs after leaving university, including working for a company that hired out computers as props for films and television, and a role turning the entire back catalogue of a publisher into e-books.Tom eventually found tha... Full Bio

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