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

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 threatsAt 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


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Business as usual...

    The problem of course is that open source isn't used to "business" and tend to think of everything as a hobby and they don't have to play by the rules.
    • Of course...

      MS has an obligation to make unsubstantiated claims of patent violation. If they were substantiated, people might stop violating the patents and MS would have less of an opportunity to collect damages from unwitting violators.
      John L. Ries
      • Of course

        If the open source crowd would release the study done with the FSF blessing they would then know what patents they are violation.
        • Some patents.

          Mr. Stallman relied on that study when he siad he expected that patents are violated in Linux. But Microsoft's patent claims are based on the company's own work. Part of that work was a review of the patents by an outside organization, which said they were of good quality.

          Anyway, releasing the FSF study wouldn't announce what patentsMicrosoft believes are violated.
          Anton Philidor
          • BS

            No one at Microsoft has ever substantiated what the patents that might even be therefore it is ludicrous to claim they are based on any research whatsoever.

            The quality will not matter anyhow if there is never any effort to mitigate the infringement problem. Essentially its all just part of the FUD factory and of no value in the real world.
          • Microsoft should...

            ... have to provide the code or pay a penalty for these threats.

            This kind of heavy-handed throwing around of their weight is what attracted the EU's attention to Microsoft's business practices.

            People are always put off by the legal muscle flexing even if they are trying to find a silver lining in Microsoft's existence (no matter what is said, Windows is a great OS that ties the command structure of programs into a common method of control).

            I am not sure if there is much planning of these strategies, but given the new legal atmosphere, I doubt that attacking a minor player in the OS game will be an endearing action as far as the EU is concerned. I hope there is some expensive price to pay for this threatening action.
          • No BS!

            The software world seems always to be broken into two camps.
            One believes in the concept of the free lunch (Econ 101 says it ain't so) and the other believes intellectual property like physical property has a value that requires compensation to use.
        • Another factual item.

          The study to which you're referring, I think, was completed by a group starting an insurance company for open source, protecting against IP violations. A number of members were prominent open sourcers, but the organization was not part of FSF.

          The work was accepted as credible by Mr. Stallman and others, but I don't know that they confirmed any of it. Too dangerous... With patents, knowledge is liability.
          Anton Philidor
        • Not their job

          If MS thinks its patents are being violated, it's their job to substantiate it, not the FSF's or anyone else's. Of course, if Steve Ballmer wants people to think he's a liar as well as a bully, that's his business.
          John L. Ries
        • You mean the OSDL study which FSF has no access to.

          But then you know that, because I've proven it about 15 times already yet the lies and BS just keep falling out of your fingers and on to the keyboard.

          PS Dan Ravicher of the PPF

          Eben Moglen of the SFLC

          Can you learn to tell them apart or is your allergy to facts that severe?
      • The law requires an injured party to mitigate damanges.

        If Microsoft knows OSS is violating their IP they have an obligation to mitigate those damages and thus may be limiting the amount they collect if they do not.
        • Yup

          And failure to do so raises the affirmative defense of laches.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Ye try explaining that to No_Axe .

          He continues to go on in circles about how FOSS must show all their code to Microsoft
          , because Steve Ballmer believes that Linux is infringing . Someone quick get him
          some meds , better yet call up Bellevue and tell them that we have a loony Zuney that
          goes by the moniker of No_Axe_To_Grind .
      • "unwitting violators" ??

        Who would that be? And, how would one unwittingly violate a patent?
        • You don't know?

          You don't have to even know of a patent's existence to violate it, you just have to implement the technology it describes.

          Some might say that this would invalidate the patent on the grounds of obviousness but apparently the courts disagree and just make the penalty less harsh.
          • A program is not an "invention"

            The computer itself was an invention. A distinct programming language might be an invention. Programs are just uses of that invention. I think this is obvious, and that there is obviously one best, most efficient program for any given set of parameters. If the second programmer uses the same code to solve the same problem, that code is obviously good code, but not an invention. YMMV
    • Speaking of rules . . .

      Microsoft seems to have a hard time complying with anti-trust laws.
      • Not that I can see.

        It seems to me they have done everything the courts have asked them to do.
        • Not surprised you can't see

          What, exactly, have the courts asked the Linux community to do?

          But let Microsoft take them to court, please! But THAT won't happen because this is a paper tiger, meant only to intimidate.

          You said the same things about the SCO case, why should we accept your take on this?
          • Don't use my words, use the FSF study

            the one they had their legal animal do when they found hundreds of patent violations.

            Hey, how about this, start with the violations that open source KNOWS are there first, then work on what MS may come up with.