Microsoft's secret deals on open source

Microsoft's secret deals on open source

Summary: Microsoft has been building a portfolio of open-source licence deals. It still prefers secrecy

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TOPICS: Legal, Piracy
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It's a familiar story. Microsoft does a secret deal with a company over patent licences. Almost no details are provided about which patents, how much money has changed hands, or why, except for one vaguely worded press release that talks about how such secret deals benefit the customer through openness and innovation.

This time, the lucky donor of cash for secrets is Brother, which will now be allowed to use Microsoft patents to make printers. As Microsoft doesn't make printers — indeed, doesn't even make printer drivers — it is an interesting exercise to try and guess what's actually happened. It's fruitless to ask either of the companies — and we did try. In cases like this, as in the best gangster movies, nobody ain't sayin' nothin'.

Patents, you might remember, are designed to encourage innovation by the disclosure of information: when a $1.8bn (£1.2bn) company pays a $230bn company a secret amount for secret rights to a secret list of patents — something else is going on than the open promotion of innovation and "a healthy and vibrant IT ecosystem".

In this case, as so often, it involves Linux. Brother uses Linux in some of its printers. Microsoft claims Linux infringes its patents. It won't say in public which ones, and it doesn't attempt to press such claims against companies — such as IBM — who would want to fight back and not care about the cost (Ask SCO how that business with AIX went). It doesn't go after people who have little to lose and plenty to gain by fighting back, such as individual high-profile developers or small open-source teams. And it has never gone to court on this matter.

Instead, it sends in the lads to mid-sized companies who would really suffer from a long court case, and who care about that lovely legal fact of intellectual-property life: paying off a determined litigant is often cheaper than winning. A look at the list of people with whom deals have been done, and from whom cash has been extracted, underlines Microsoft's approach: Novell, for example (market cap: $1.25bn) and Nikon ($4.2bn) both paid Microsoft. Kyocera ($12bn) has a deal with no mention of payment. Samsung ($100bn) may be on equal terms. Microsoft says that it did a 'similar' deal with HP ($85bn), but uniquely, no details whatsoever have been published.

Of course, it isn't illegal to cross-licence patents in exchange for cash or cuddles. Indeed, it's as much part of the system as the principle of open dissemination of information. But you can't have one without the other. If Microsoft cares about looking like a company more interested in innovating openly than doing closed deals, then it should be open on details such as which patents are involved.

Otherwise, Microsoft's trick of gaining revenue from licensing open-source software behind closed doors will smell more and more like extortion. As the economy sours and curdles, the values of trust and accountability will prove to be worth far more than a handful of dollars in secret taxation raised on other people's software.

Topics: Legal, Piracy

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5 comments
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  • Leader, as always

    Leader,

    as always, you've:
    nail;
    hit;
    on the head.
    conz-fd600
  • Other peoples software...

    I am so disgusted over what is going on in the industry I work in. I have seen much much more than what this article could hope to cover and to cut a long story short there is always one common denominator: Microsoft.

    Thank you very much MS-DOJ for NOT breaking up this disgustingly corrupt monopoly. You have shown us all that you are as corrupt as they are. 2008 was bad enough (stacking votes, bribes and buying a standard from a corrupt ISO anybody ? Prompting major industry heavyweights to publicly abandon the ISO as anything more than a running joke within the industry). Despite Microsoft's marketing of itself as more open, better behaved, nicer and friendlier and all that BS, some of the worst behaviour I have ever seen from this corporation ensued last year. And it continues, and looks like it will get worse 2009. The consequences of the inaction of law enforcement bodies and the corruption of standards bodies is the distortion of an industry and the snuffing out of fair competition.

    This reality is a little like Internet Explorer 8, which Microsoft has been propagandising for ages as their most standards compliant web browser ever. Yes, its the new, more friendly, more open, standards compliant Microsoft... No, I ran the Acid3 standards compliance test on Internet Explorer 8: It scored 20 out of 100. As typically and miserably non-compliant as ever. THAT'S the reality of Microsoft.

    And they want you to pay them so that you can use other people's software. When will someone stand up and not just fine this pack of bastards, but do something that actually has teeth, like revoking their license to trade (the EU has the authority to do this).

    Enough is enough.
    ITsupportGuy
  • Not quite

    Actually, Microsoft paid Novell.
    David Gerard
  • Isn't this rackeetering?

    Wikipedia defines rackeetering as: "The best-known is the protection racket, in which criminals demand money from businesses in exchange for the service of 'protection' against crimes that the racketeers themselves instigate if unpaid."

    So here we have a convicted monopolist (criminal) demanding money from a business (Brother) in exchange for the service of 'protection' against crimes that the monopolist themselves instigate if unpaid (legal action).

    Not good.
    anonymous
  • Microsoft's secret deals on open source

    Whilst Microsoft surrounds itself in secrecy, one can't help being suspicious. Thoughts such as abuse of monoploy, divide and conquer, embrace and extinguish, 20's style protection racket come to mind, in addition to the suggestion of extortion mentioned in the article.

    True openness is required for software development and innovation; there should be room for genuine competition without fear of the bully. Strange that competition is a pillar of commerce these days, except for several well known IT monopolies.

    As a byline, the pletherer of ridiculous patents which chacterise IT should be done away with to open up innovation and competition, and make room for the smaller organisations who cannot afford millions or billions on lawyers. Patent trolls should be outlawed, they make no contribution beyond that of a leech.
    The Former Moley