Software patents hot topic at Microsoft event

A Microsoft-hosted panel discussion on interoperability was interrupted when a member of a Linux user group raised questions on patent issues.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

SINGAPORE--A Microsoft panel discussion with two members of the open source community changed course when attention was swung to patent issues raised by a member of the audience.

During a Microsoft interoperability event Tuesday, Harish Pillay, president of the Linux Users' Group (Singapore), asked if Microsoft would make its software patents available to the open source community.

Pillay asked if Microsoft would release its patents to the Open Invention Network (OIN), in line with its pledge toward interoperability.

The OIN, whose founders include IBM, Novell and Red Hat, acquires patents, licensing them royalty-free to companies that agree not to assert their own patents against Linux or open source applications.

Oliver Bell, regional technology officer, Microsoft Asia-Pacific, responded, saying Microsoft has an interest in protecting intellectual property that it has invested research and development (R&D) dollars in.

He added that a royalties-based partnership could be arranged: "If Red Hat picks up a project we've invested in and commercializes it, we'd like a relationship around that."

In a response to a ZDNet Asia e-mail later, Pillay argued that Microsoft could still protect its investment in its software patents by selling them to the OIN.

Bell said in a follow-up e-mail, Microsoft does not participate in the OIN, but has made a pledge saying it will not sue open source developers on patent infringements.

It is a "simplified method for sharing technical assets" while recognizing intellectual property, said Bell.

Microsoft's patent pledge has drawn both praise and criticism from the open source community. While some developers welcomed it, others, more notably Bradley Kuhn, CTO, Software Freedom Law Center, has panned it as being too restrictive.

Kuhn said in a 2006 letter, the pledge holds little value for developers because it requires software to be developed and kept at home; it is voided once software is distributed or the developer gets paid.

Pillay noted at the event, Microsoft is still pushing the messaging that Linux infringes on Microsoft's intellectual property.

The recently-closed Microsoft-TomTom case has similarly incited fear among the Linux community that Microsoft might pursue other Linux-related companies on patent issues.

Microsoft has said it has an obligation to its shareholders as well as patent licensees to ensure the company is being fairly compensated for its intellectual property.

Mike Veltman, Interoperability User Group owner, one of the panelists, acknowledged that Microsoft is a profit-driven company. He said users want choice, and if Microsoft is able to ensure interoperability and for developers to build upon its products, both proprietary software and the open source community can co-exist.

Another panelist, Michael Cheng, PHP User Group owner, rated Microsoft's efforts at interoperability an eight-over-10. Cheng said he is happy with Microsoft working with Zen on its server products, as well as Microsoft's Expression Web product supporting PHP.

At the event, Microsoft also announced the release of Service Pack (SP) 2 for its Office 2007 product, which supports the Open Document Format (ODF).

The ODF Alliance on Wednesday posted a press release, in response, celebrating the software giant's support for the document format.

ODF Alliance managing director Marino Marcich said: "This is a victory for ODF, as it signifies a reversal of course by Microsoft from their decision to shun the format during the initial launch of Office 2007."

Pillay has posted an account of the event on his blog.

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