Microsoft trying to use its patents wallet weapon again Free Software. Moglen: “Waterloo is here somewhere”

Interesting article by CNN: Microsoft takes on the free world. Microsoft claims that free software like Linux, which runs a big chunk of corporate America, violates 235 of its patents. It wants royalties from distributors and users. Users like you, maybe.

Some quotes and short comments below.

More than half the companies in the Fortune 500 are thought to be using the free operating system Linux in their data centers.

I didn’t know. Well, it is becoming harder and harder to dismiss Free Software, isn’t it? And in fact …

Microsoft asserts that one reason free software is of such high quality is that it violates more than 200 of Microsoft’s patents.

And this is ridicolous, Microsoft is claiming that GNU/Linux developers are studying the patents Microsoft got and copied them? Or it is more that Microsoft is patenting everything (instead of spending the money it gets from its monopolistic position for creating a decent Operating System) notwithstanding evident prior art? Trying to patent smileys? With the US Patent Office
even rejecting a patent previously granted to Microsoft for a file format as “obvious and therefore not subject to patent”? Well the examples could be thousands.

The conflict pits Microsoft and its dogged CEO, Steve Ballmer, against the “free world” – people who believe software is pure knowledge. The leader of that faction is Richard Matthew Stallman, a computer visionary with the look and the intransigence of an Old Testament prophet.

I loved the picture used by CNN

Furthermore, FOSS has powerful corporate patrons and allies. In 2005, six of them – IBM (Charts, Fortune 500), Sony, Philips, Novell, Red Hat (Charts) and NEC – set up the Open Invention Network to acquire a portfolio of patents that might pose problems for companies like Microsoft, which are known to pose a patent threat to Linux. So if Microsoft ever sued Linux distributor Red Hat for patent infringement, for instance, OIN might sue Microsoft in retaliation, trying to enjoin distribution of Windows. It’s a cold war, and what keeps the peace is the threat of mutually assured destruction: patent Armageddon – an unending series of suits and countersuits that would hobble the industry and its customers. “It’s a tinderbox,” Moglen says. “As the commercial confrontation between [free software] and software-that’s-a-product becomes more fierce, patent law’s going to be the terrain on which a big piece of the war’s going to be fought. Waterloo is here somewhere.”

I didn’t know about the OIN but the mention to cold war is really appropriate. And to the possible Armageddon as well. I’m a bit surprised that Microsoft decided to take it so frontal. If they lose this one, it will be one of the last. Obviously they have thought very well about the strategy. Uhm.

Anyway this is one more reason for not embracing software patents in Europe. Software patents don’t make sense but also politicians who seems not too interesting in what make sense but mainly in consensus should understand that letting Microsoft sue European companies and citizens is not a too clever move.

He says that the Linux kernel – the deepest layer of the free operating system, which interacts most directly with the computer hardware – violates 42 Microsoft patents. The Linux graphical user interfaces – essentially, the way design elements like menus and toolbars are set up – run afoul of another 65, he claims. The Open Office suite of programs, which is analogous to Microsoft Office, infringes 45 more. E-mail programs infringe 15, while other assorted FOSS programs allegedly transgress 68.

Since you are simply tossing numbers in the air, why not saying that every program violates at least 1.988.456.645.110.000 Microsoft patents, eh?

Stallman demanded that all contributors to GNU projects assign their copyrights to the Free Software Foundation, which Stallman set up and controlled. That meant that anyone who distributed free software covered by those copyrights had to abide by a license Stallman wrote, called the GNU General Public License (GPL).

I think this is the only technical error in the article. I think contributors to the GNU projects retain their copyright and simply decide to use the GNU GPL licence. Am I wrong?

(Stallman insists that “GNU/Linux” is the proper name, and he refuses to give interviews to reporters unless they promise to call it that in every reference. In part for that reason, he was not interviewed for this article.)

I love this man! ;-)

Smith was not to be deterred. Since the GPL covered only distributors of Linux, nothing stopped Smith from seeking royalties directly from end users – many of which are Fortune 500 companies. He would have to proceed carefully, however, because most of those users were also major Microsoft customers.

The terrain is slippery. I’m a bit surprised Microsoft took it so frontal. The article also speaks about Microsoft-Novell deal and this is quite important as well. Anyway we’ll see in the coming months where is the Waterloo. Stay tuned.

Update: Growlaw publishes some reasons for not worrying and they are clever and clearly explained.

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