By now I'm sure you've all read about Microsoft's latest attempt to slow down open source software adoption by asserting that Linux and other open source software violates 200+ of their patents. This isn't the first time they've made such a claim, nor will it be the last.
But what if I told you that Windows, Vista, Office, and other software from Microsoft violate 532 patents? Would that make you any less likely to use Microsoft software? What if I claimed the following alleged violations:
- Windows core operating system: 132
- .NET framework: 91
- Windows/Vista GUI: 83
- Microsoft Office: 159
- Other: 67
These numbers sound reasonable, don't they? As Linux trademark holder Linus Torvalds told InformationWeek:
It's certainly a lot more likely that Microsoft violates [more] patents than Linux does. Basic operating system theory was pretty much done by the end of the 1960s. IBM probably owned thousands of really 'fundamental' patents.
Even the Open Source Risk Management study cited by Microsoft says "Linux is neither more nor less at risk from software patent lawsuits than proprietary software".
"Prove it," you might say, "and list all the violations". But suppose I don't want to tell you the patent numbers because that could "allow developers to challenge the patent or re-program the softwares to circumvent the violations." Instead, suppose I offer you a deal: if you either pay me a certain amount of money, or sign over an equivalent amount of your own patents, then I'll promise you won't be sued. Sound fair?
The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia defines the word "extortion" as follows:
Unlawful exaction of money or property through intimidation or undue exercise of authority. It may include threats of physical harm, criminal prosecution, or public exposure. Some forms of threat, especially those made in writing, are occasionally singled out for separate statutory treatment as blackmail.
In actuality I'm not making any such claims. I just made up those numbers to prove a point. Short of listing all the numbers and painstakingly going through and proving each "violation", ultimately through years of lawsuits, there's no way to prove any such assertion as true or false. But as legal expert Eben Moglen says,
Suing is expensive, suing is irreversible, and suing might actually cause you to have to explain which patents they are and why they’re any good. So threatening is better than suing.
So the question really becomes, what are you going to let guide your open source decisions? Threats and numbers picked out of the air, or the real business benefits that come from using and contributing to open source?