What is in those Microsoft Linux patent agreements?

Why are so many smart companies signing up with these agreements? What is in them?

There are three ways to speculate about Microsoft's latest Linux patent cross-license, this time with HTC:

  1. Microsoft is pushing its weight around (again).
  2. Microsoft is aligning with Google against Apple.
  3. Microsoft is making peace with everyone.

(Ah, yes, the classic Boardwatch "Billgatus of Borg" cover, from my days writing for Boardwatch Magazine in 1998.)

The first is the idea that Microsoft is trying to surround Linux with patent claims, place a stranglehold on Linux, and control open source. The second is that this is all part of the "great game" among the big tech powers, wheels within wheels mere mortals could never understand. The third is that Microsoft wants to end the era of patent suits -- as was done with Amazon so with Android.

But I want to look at a different question today. Why are so many smart companies signing up with these agreements? What is in them?

Microsoft has always kept a proprietary no comment on these deals, and non-disclosure is a condition on the other side as well. Outsiders have been led to understand Microsoft has some patent claims involving Linux (undisclosed)  that companies are recognizing, and that they are paying for the privilege.

But what patents? How much? What's in the fine print? This we are never told. The game has been going on for over three years now -- since the first deal with Novell -- and the public is still being kept in the dark.

No doubt Microsoft believes this is in its best interest. It helps if people believe these are onorous terms, that Microsoft has everyone over a barrel, and Linux by the throat.

But I wonder. If Microsoft's intent really is to make patent peace with Linux, not patent war, then at some point the cost of the fear (from open source advocates) outweighs its value.

Despite all these deals, despite Codeplex, despite releasing coders to work on projects like Joomla, Microsoft is still looked upon with loathing by open source advocates. (Just look at our talkbacks.) But that attitude would change, and open source would be far more willing to make peace with Microsoft, if we knew what was in those agreements, and knew they were no big deal.

You don't think a Microsoft lawyer might want to lose one of these things inside my favorite bar, do you? I'd pay for the martinis.