Microsoft's Ballmer calls out Red Hat with more patent threats

Summary:Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is back on the "Linux violates our patents" kick. But this time, he's calling out Red Hat, specifically, for allegedly infringing on Microsoft IP. And he's hinting there could be other patent challenges coming to open source from companies like Eolas.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is back on the "Linux violates our patents" kick. But this time, he's calling out Red Hat, specifically, for allegedly infringing on Microsoft IP.

Microsoft’s Ballmer calls out Red Hat with more patent threats
At the UK launch of Microsoft's Startup Accelerator Programme last week, Ballmer said it's only a matter of time before the leading Linux distributor is going to have to pay up for allegedly violating Microsoft IP. As reported by VNU.Net:

"'People who use Red Hat, at least with respect to our intellectual property, in a sense have an obligation to compensate us,' Ballmer said last week at a company event in London discussing online services in the UK."

Red Hat execs said earlier this summer that Red Hat isn't opposed to working with Microsoft on the interoperabiity front, but that it has no intentions of signing a patent-protection agreement, like those inked by Novell, Linspire and Xandros. Under those agreements, Microsoft has agreed not to sue customers using those vendors' Linux distributions (as long as they are not covered by the GNU General Public License Version 3) for a set period of time. In order to secure this indemnification promise, these vendors agreed to license Microsoft IP that the Redmondians claim is part of Linux and other open-source products.

It seemed Microsoft was going to try to let controversy die down, following claims earlier this year that free and open-source software violates 235 of Microsoft's patents. But it looks like Ballmer has decided -- maybe because no new Linux vendors have signed patent-protection contracts with Microsoft recently -- that it's time to rattle the patent sabers again.

Every time Ballmer opens his mouth on this issue, it seems to me he undoes any goodwill that Bill Hilf (who recently received a promotion and is now General Manager of Windows Server Marketing and Platform Strategy) and his team had done to build bridges with the open-source community.

Groklaw.Net noted that Ballmer's latest remarks go further than simply claiming that Red Hat is violating unnamed Microsoft patents. During the aformentioned Q&A, Ballmer hinted that Eolas -- the company that sued Microsoft for browser patent violations and won a settlement with the Redmondians -- might be the kind of company to go after Linux and open-source vendors for patent violations. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I can't help but wonder if one of the terms in the Eolas-Microsoft settlement might specify that Eolas lodge a patent lawsuit against Red Hat or other open-source vendor. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

Groklaw also highlighted another Ballmer remark from the Q&A:

"I would love to see all Open Source innovation happen on top of Windows. So we've done a lot to encourage, for example, the team building, PHP, the team building, many of the other Open Source components, I'd love to see those sorts of innovations proceed very successfully on top of Windows."

What kinds of incentives (monetary and otherwise) might Microsoft be offering open-source vendors to get their software to "proceed very successfully on top of Windows"? Did Microsoft pay Novell anything (money, resources, indemnification promises, etc.) to help get Silverlight ported to Linux? Interestingly, neither Microsoft nor Miguel de Icaza and his Moonlight team says they are at liberty to discuss that issue....

(The Red Hat Session. Image by Ende. CC 2.0)

Topics: Linux, Microsoft, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

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Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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