Microsoft, Linux same side of patent fence?

Redmond itself will be up against software patents in a few years, says Ubuntu founder who believes Microsoft's real threat is the same as everyone else's.

Microsoft will be a strong advocate against software patents within a few years, says Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth.

In a blog posting Monday, Shuttleworth wrote that while much has been said about Microsoft's allegation of patent infringements on Linux, Microsoft and the Linux community will end up fighting on the same side of this issue.

He said: "I'm pretty certain that, within a few years, Microsoft themselves will be strong advocates against software patents…because Microsoft is irrevocably committed to shipping new software every year, and software patents represent landmines in their roadmap which they are going to step on, like it or not, with increasing regularity.

"They can't sit on the sidelines of the software game--they actually have to ship new products. And every time they do that, they risk stepping on a patent landmine," Shuttleworth added. "They are a perfect target--they have deep pockets, and they have no option but to negotiate a settlement, or go to court, when confronted with a patent suit."

Shuttleworth noted that Microsoft already spends huge sums of money on patent settlements. "That number will creep upwards until it's abundantly clear to them that they would be better off if software patents were history."

According to the Software Freedom Law Center, Microsoft has in the last three years paid out more than US$4 billion to plaintiffs claiming that Microsoft's Windows and Office products infringed their patents.

"In short, Microsoft will lose a patent trench war if they start one, and I’m sure that cooler heads in Redmond know that," he said.

Shuttleworth explained that while both Microsoft and Ubuntu have the same aim of empowering people for the digital era, they differ widely on the implementation of that ideal. "But my point is that Microsoft is actually committed to the same game that we, free software people, are committed to: building things which people use every day," he said.

"So, Microsoft is not the real patent threat to Linux," he said. "The real threat to Linux is the same as the real threat to Microsoft, and that is a patent suit from a person or company that is not actually building software, but has filed patents on ideas that the GNU project and Microsoft are equally likely to be implementing."

Shuttleworth also expects a patent lawsuit against Linux in the next decade. "As they say in Hollywood, where there's a hit there's a writ. And Linux is a hit," he wrote.

Shuttleworth pointed out: "I'm certain someone will sue somebody else about Linux on patent grounds, but it's less likely to be Microsoft (starting a trench war) and more likely to be a litigant who only holds IP and doesn't actually get involved in the business of software.

"It will be a small company, possibly just a holding company that has a single patent or small portfolio, and goes after people selling Linux-based devices," he said.

Despite allegations made by Microsoft in a recent Fortune magazine story that free and open-source software infringes 235 of its patents, the software giant said Monday that it has no immediate plans to sue, at least for now.