Skip the navigation

'PatentGate,' one year later: Microsoft against the open-source world

Has Microsoft advanced its legal claims to those 235 patents?

By Eric Lai
May 21, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - It was just over a year ago that Microsoft Corp. dropped a bombshell of a claim: users of Linux and open-source software were unwittingly violating as many as 235 Microsoft software patents.

"This is not a case of some accidental, unknowing infringement," Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's vice president of intellectual property and licensing, told Fortune magazine at the time. "There is an overwhelming number of patents being infringed."

Releasing a count of the allegedly infringed patents added a bit of specificity to Microsoft's longstanding contentions that Linux uses its intellectual property. Since then, critics say, the software vendor has played the "good cop, bad cop" routine with the open-source camp.

For example, promising not to sue customers of eight vendors that had signed cross-licensing deals with Microsoft for potential open-source-related violations? Good cop. But continuing to refuse to publicly reveal what those alleged patent violations are? Bad cop.

Here's another: Announcing in March that open-source developers will now be able to use hundreds of Microsoft software protocols without a license for noncommercial use? Good cop. CEO Steve Ballmer telling customers of licensing holdout Red Hat Inc. last October that they "have an obligation to compensate" Microsoft for IP violations? Bad, bad cop.

Gutierrez, interviewed late last week, said that Microsoft's hot-and-cold engagement with the open-source community is neither "intentional" nor "inherently contradictory."

"We spend $7 billion a year on research, development and cranking out innovations," he said. "We need to protect our innovations against people who infringe upon them."

But legal eagles in the open-source camp argue that Microsoft's moves, even its ostensibly positive ones, have done little to bolster its patent claim.

"Claiming you have IP that folks are infringing isn't the same thing as proving it," wrote Pamela Jones, author of the open-source legal blog, in an e-mail. "I think they [Microsoft] are in a weaker position because they did the [cross-licensing] deals. It makes them look needy, like they can't make it any more without Linux."

"The [legal] threat [to open source] is no greater" today than a year ago, wrote Mark Radcliffe, a lawyer with DLA Piper's Silicon Valley office and the general counsel of the Open Source Initiative, in an e-mail.

Take Microsoft's attempts to persuade vendors to sign cross-licensing deals that include protection from potential open-source patent lawsuits by Microsoft.

Besides Novell Inc. and Fuji Xerox Co., which both had signed deals before "PatentGate," other cross-licensees include Asian consumer electronics makers Samsung Electronics, Kyocera Mita and LG Electronics, and a trio of smaller Linux makers, including Turbolinux, Linspire Inc., and Xandros Inc. and its Scalix subsidiary.

Our Commenting Policies