With the tedious inevitability of an unloved season, Microsoft is threatening open source with the law. Linux is in violation of 235 of its patents, says the company. It won't say which. It won't say how. It won't say what it plans to do. It just wants us to know how it feels.
History does not favour this approach. SCO took Microsoft's money and baited a bear-trap for open source with non-specific allegations: SCO is now bleeding to death in that self-same snare. Microsoft itself has already tried to scare governments, to no noticeable effect. Now it's ratcheting up the stakes, while trying not to say anything that can actually be checked.
Unfortunately for the company, some of its statements can be held up to reality — and they don't hold up well. Microsoft says that it respects intellectual property and that it is in favour of innovation, yet this move is a direct assault on both. Open-source developers have a very simple approach to intellectual property: if they are shown to be in violation, then they will immediately remedy the situation. This is both morally and legally correct. By refusing to specify the IP violations, Microsoft is preventing this remedy. This disrespects IP, the law behind it and the people who abide by both.
As for innovation, developers now find themselves in a position where they do not know what patents are applicable where, just that they'll be in trouble if they don't second-guess Microsoft's 800-strong legal team. This is intolerable pollution of the intellectual environment.
Or it would be pollution, if Microsoft was being taken seriously. It isn't. Four years of SCO threats have inoculated the industry against fear, uncertainty and doubt, and very few people think that MS could prevail. Groklaw's PJ has a list of seven reasons why not. We'd like to add another: that any suit would immediately incur a counter-suit where the company's own standing in relation to other patents would be questioned — not something Microsoft has any interest in happening. Disclosure in that case would be fascinating for the rest of us, involving, as it would, source code, secret deals and internal emails. The company's rarely done well in such cases.
If Microsoft wants to avoid ridicule, it has two choices: sue or shut up. Until it decides, we call its bluff.