What should Microsoft do about the 235 "free software" patent violations?

What should Microsoft do about the 235 "free software" patent violations?

Summary: A lot of pixels have been devoted to a story by Fortune Magazine covering claims made by Microsoft that free software is violating 235 of the company's patents.


A lot of pixels have been devoted to a story by Fortune Magazine (CNN coverage here) covering claims made by Microsoft that free software is violating 235 of the company's patents.

The core of the argument is summed up as follows:

The conflict pits Microsoft and its dogged CEO, Steve Ballmer, against the "free world" - people who believe software is pure knowledge. The leader of that faction is Richard Matthew Stallman, a computer visionary with the look and the intransigence of an Old Testament prophet.

Caught in the middle are big corporate Linux users like Wal-Mart, AIG, and Goldman Sachs. Free-worlders say that if Microsoft prevails, the whole quirky ecosystem that produced Linux and other free and open-source software (FOSS) will be undermined.

Microsoft counters that it is a matter of principle. "We live in a world where we honor, and support the honoring of, intellectual property," says Ballmer in an interview. FOSS patrons are going to have to "play by the same rules as the rest of the business," he insists. "What's fair is fair."

There's also a breakdown of the alleged violations given:

  • Linux kernel - 42 violations
  • Linux graphical user interfaces - 65 violations
  • Open Office - 45 violations
  • Email apps - 15 violations
  • Misc - 68 violations

If suing was on the cards, rest assured that there wouldn't be this kind of banter going onDespite the breakdown of alleged violations, Microsoft still refuses to identify specific patents or explain how they're being infringed,.  Many involved in open source communities have asked Microsoft to do this but the company is probably unwilling to take this step for fear of generating a tidal wave of challenges.

First off, let's clear up one thing here.  Microsoft is not interested is suing.  It's already declared such action as being a non-starter as it would "get in the way of everything we were trying to accomplish in terms of [improving] our connections with other companies, the promotion of interoperability, the desires of customers."  If suing was on the cards, rest assured that there wouldn't be this kind of banter going on.

Now here's a question for you.  What should Microsoft do about this?  It seems to me that they have three options open to them:

  • Ignore the situation and let the issue slide (effectively donating the patents to the open source community)
  • Demand royalties or enter into licensing agreements
  • Do nothing in the interim but keep an eye on the situation

[poll id=138]

It's clear that Microsoft isn't going to ignore the issue and let it slide because the company wouldn't be engaging in this debate if that was the case (it's also not going to be a move that pleases Microsoft's stakeholders).  Same goes for doing nothing.  It seems that the only viable route for Microsoft to take is enter into discussions over possible royalties.

Some commentators are taking the view that this is signals a new Microsoft desperate to squeeze cash from Linux because its own business model is crumbling.  Given Microsoft's bottom line, this kind of statement is bordering on the ridiculous.  If Microsoft's business model is crumbling, other companies such as Apple, who have a far less muscular bottom line, must be in dire trouble (which they're not, of course).  Record quarterly profits aren't the usual sign of an eroding business model.

Some say that Microsoft needs to outline what the violations are and allow the open source community to code around the problems.  That's certainly a possible solution, but give me one reason why Microsoft should do this?

Some doubt the numbers.  I don't.  The open source movement is massive and with so much code being written, there are bound to be patent infringements.  As Robert McLaws wrote:

Let's face it. In the world of software development, everyone copies everyone. And Linux is, at it's heart, a decentralized operation to build software that competes against Windows by mimicking it, directly or indirectly. It may even have been done accidentally, which isn't terribly farfetched. Accident or not, it happened, and that's all well and good. But if you're an open source developer, and you think that duplicating someone else's technology doesn't open you or your organization up to liability, then you're an idiot.

The landscape has changed significantly.  Back when open source was the domain of geeks with high ideals, it's easy to overlook patent violations (in fact, it would be nuts to even waste too much time worrying about it).  But now that you have massive companies built on a foundation of open source, open source is big business and the rules have changed.

What are your views on the conflict between Microsoft and the open source movement?

Topics: Open Source, Microsoft

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  • Atleast so far they haven't went the way of the patent troll...

    I would say it would be rather hypocritical of them.
  • OSS the true villans

    "Microsoft and Novell already developed a solution that meets the needs of customers, furthers interoperability, and advances the interests of the industry as a whole"

    Its clearly evident that it is the OSS that is not interested in interoperability. They are not concerned about customers either. However the FSF and other OSS communities go out of their way to tarnish Microsoft.

    With GPL 3.0, its clearly evident who villans are. Its the OSS folks who dont want interoperability.

    "Ignore the situation and let the issue slide (effectively donating the patents to the open source community) "

    What that is not an option.
    Its so shameless for the OSS community to steal others patents and expect software companies to donate them.
    There is no valid reason to donate anything to theives who steal patents.
    • Uhh...

      OSS doesn't want interoperability? WHAT? We're the ones advocating open standards that everyone can use so that we can ensure interoperability for years to come (long after today's software is replaced). Microsoft is the one making up their own "standards" (which nobody else uses) for the express purpose of making it nearly impossible to switch away from them. Microsoft hates interoperability because it prevents vendor lock-in, which is what they thrive upon.
    • Wow , so you are the judge , jury & executioner .

      You openly state that the OSS is/are a bunch of thieves . You sound like Microsoft now , first off you have to prove it , not rattle your mouth . Why would the OSS want to interoperate with Microsoft , look what has happened over the past 3 years . Now the big whale <MS> wants to swallow the little fish <Linux> . Microsoft can't put a patent on the inner workings of the MIND , we all have one . Microsoft is not GOD !
      I'm Ye, the MS SHILL .
      • check what ur zdnet handle says b4 calling some judge,jury & executioner

        Yeah, the OSS are a bunch of theives, implmenting others patents without licencing them.

        Even Stallman has admitted that there are 200+ patent violations.
        • runas vs sudo

          I would guess that one of the alleged infringements is the Microsoft 'runas' patent (US Patent 6,775,781). Please read the patent's claims and the documentation for 'sudo' on any modern Unix and explain to me how Microsoft is not 'a bunch of thieves', as you so eloquently put it. Sudo clearly predates runas.
      • ignore the troll

        MS is the biggest violator of patents, they got a nice long list of court judgements against them (or out of court settlements) as proof.
        I've yet to see one against F/OSS.
        Windows users are the biggest piraters of software/music/videos so don't respond to the gutter posters, they've had more time at that level and therefore more experience of the gutter, you don;t want to go down that far.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction

    In my opinion it wouldn't do microsoft allot of good to sue over linux. They'd either have to sue users of linux, RIAA style and have a major PR disater or sue companies like IBM, SCO style, and who wants to end up in a long protracted battle which saps all your resources and destroys your company. The GPL doesn't allow distributors of GPL material (such as linux) to pay royalties over patents, hence the odd, convoluted novell-microsoft deal, so microsoft will most likely seek payments from large companies using linux, which will threaten their business with those companies.

    Aside from this, it is fairly easy to see whether open source software infringes on patents, you can look at the source code and just check. I think a bigger question for microsoft is whether it infringes on the patents of the supporters of linux who have a combined patent portfolio that dwarfs microsoft's. The only option for microsoft is to use a combination of FUD tactics and letters to individual companies to demand payments.
  • Show us the code

    A while back, the Linux community demanded of the Microsoftees "show us the code," meaning the code that they say we stole from them. They never did get around to that. Besides, it's no secret that Windows infringes on tons of patents. They've taken *so many* things from elsewhere, it's impossible that they don't infringe. For that matter, it's impossible for any software not to infringe on any patents. Apple has a patent on *menus* where you pick one category, then another, then another on a digital media player. EVERY mp3 player infringes that.
    • You took the words right off my keyboard...

      "Besides, it's no secret that Windows infringes on tons of patents. They've taken *so many* things from elsewhere, it's impossible that they don't infringe."

      Does anyone remember Microsoft Java? How about how they were going to build "Save as PDF" into Office2007 (without Adobe's permission)? And, as poor as their anti-spyware/anti-virus products have been found to be, who here thinks they started from scratch in writing their code? Virtually anytime a product comes out that's made to be compatible with Windows and that product becomes popular, Microsoft comes out with something so incredibly similar that, to claim it was an original idea, it boggles the mind to wonder where they got their mountain-sized gonads.

      'Nuf sed.

  • Bad, very Bad ...

    That is what software patents are. As a 30+ year programmer, in many languages, I can tell you there are just certain ways you can do or express things in code.

    A recent example by Microsoft, I was reading about on patents-on-line, described a terminal service application. It was a generic description of sending control code/sequence to a screen and managing user input. Something that has been done for a very long time.

    For me, SOFTWARE patents are STUPID, but on the other hand software Copy Rights are a good thing ...
  • Microsoft = SCO

    As most of you know, Microsoft has become something of a software patent farm in recent years. While it seems like a good idea on its face, software patents only reach to the US borders and for the most part are unrecognized in other countries. Microsoft can talk big in the school yard (just as SCO did), but in a court room, they are going to have to turn over the proof that they own these various patents (and that no prior art exists). Microsoft runs the risk of having many of their patents invalidated, or worse yet having all, or a wide variety of software patents being declared unenforceable or overly broad.

    Microsoft isn't really like SCO, at least not yet, but they are about to merge onto the same road that has taken SCO where it is today. Maybe they are smarter than that....
  • Microsoft's statement is some kind of threat

    I believe that MS's statements about the patent violations is meant as a kind of threat. MS is showing its muscles to the Open Source community and the companies that are relying on it for their primary business processes. No, it will not sue, for now. But it might in the future. It is like putting a time bomb in the computer centres of a lot of companies.
    I think, they are gambling on fear. When a company is reconsidering its software infrastructure, it might think twice to invest a lot of money in Open Source with the (even remote)possibility that it might be sued or be part of a sueing by MS or be forced to do the investment again with non-Open Source.
    At the same time this is a (free publicity) advertisement of MS as a high-tech company, that's giving it's best efforts for its clients and for shareholder value.
    • Threating shows weakness ...

      When you threat you're are starting from a position of weakness because if you wanted to eliminate the competition you would have already done so.

      As for MS if you have valid patents then [i]Molon Labe.[/i]
  • Software patents.....arghhhh

    I think the whole thing behind Software patents is very slippery..... should be more of a copyright. I wonder how many parts of Windows and its many appliations have ideas/concepts that originiated in Open Source projects?

    Face it, Microsoft is not going anywhere. They own the market and just want make sure everyone knows it.

    My question is... Is Apple's OS -X in MS's cross-hairs or has Apple paid the MS tax.

    Just my $0.02
  • HO! HO! HO!

    ""We live in a world where we honor, and support the honoring of, intellectual property," says Ballmer in an interview."

    It seems to me that I recall a long history, going all the way back to DOS, of Microsoft ignoring/trampling on other companies' IP rights.

    Anyone remember DoubleSpace?
  • Correct me if I'm wrong.

    If MS code is secret and proprietary, how can it me violated by Open Source Developers? What's to keep a large software company from using open source code in it's proprietary product and then, later claiming it's their proprietary code and suing the originators, saying they copied it?
    • patents protect ideas, not source code

      If a program copies source code, it can be a copyright infringement. SCO, for example, claimed copyright violations in Linux, for an infamous example. Microsoft isn't making copyright claims. If you have a patent, nobody can use the ideas specified in your claims without risking patent infringement.
      • Thanks for the clarification.

        That's kind of what I thought.

        I applied for a patent many years ago and remember reading that programs or software source code cannot be patented.

        I guess the "ideas" are very general and common in nature. What makes MS ideas so unique? It would appear that the "Windows Idea" is a concept and we all know where that came from. It would be interesting to get some patent numbers and look this up online. Or, can you legally have a patent without a patent number?
  • Backed into a corner

    Microsoft is in a state of panic, they are backed into a corner as the world starts to migrate from their overpriced rubbish software. Governments around the world are moving away from MS products and this worries them. Governments and corporations of western nations are dropping Microsoft products now, France, UK and so on..

    Microsoft must change or die.