Microsoft claims Linux violates 235 patents
- (Fortune Magazine) -- Free software is great, and corporate America loves it. It's often high-quality stuff that can be downloaded free off the Internet and then copied at will. It's versatile - it can be customized to perform almost any large-scale computing task - and it's blessedly crash-resistant.
A broad community of developers, from individuals to large companies like IBM, is constantly working to improve it and introduce new features. No wonder the business world has embraced it so enthusiastically: More than half the companies in the Fortune 500 are thought to be using the free operating system Linux in their data centers.
But now there's a shadow hanging over Linux and other free software, and it's being cast by Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500). The Redmond behemoth asserts that one reason free software is of such high quality is that it violates more than 200 of Microsoft's patents. And as a mature company facing unfavorable market trends and fearsome competitors like Google (Charts, Fortune 500), Microsoft is pulling no punches: It wants royalties. If the company gets its way, free software won't be free anymore.
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.
]Caught in the middle are big corporate Linux users like Wal-Mart, AIG, and Goldman Sachs. Free-worlders say that if Microsoft prevails, the whole quirky ecosystem that produced Linux and other free and open-source software (FOSS) will be undermined.
Microsoft counters that it is a matter of principle. "We live in a world where we honor, and support the honoring of, intellectual property," says Ballmer in an interview. FOSS patrons are going to have to "play by the same rules as the rest of the business," he insists. "What's fair is fair."
Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith and licensing chief Horacio Gutierrez sat down with Fortune recently to map out their strategy for getting FOSS users to pay royalties. Revealing the precise figure for the first time, they state that FOSS infringes on no fewer than 235 Microsoft patents.
It's a breathtaking number. (By comparison, for instance, Verizon's (Charts, Fortune 500) patent suit against Vonage (Charts), which now threatens to bankrupt the latter, was based on just seven patents, of which only three were found to be infringing.) "This is not a case of some accidental, unknowing infringement," Gutierrez asserts. "There is an overwhelming number of patents being infringed."
The free world appears to be uncowed by Microsoft's claims. Its master legal strategist is Eben Moglen, longtime counsel to the Free Software Foundation and the head of the Software Freedom Law Center, which counsels FOSS projects on how to protect themselves from patent aggression. (He's also a professor on leave from Columbia Law School, where he teaches cyberlaw and the history of political economy.)
Moglen contends that software is a mathematical algorithm and, as such, not patentable. (The Supreme Court has never expressly ruled on the question.) In any case, the fact that Microsoft might possess many relevant patents doesn't impress him. "Numbers aren't where the action is," he says. "The action is in very tight qualitative analysis of individual situations." Patents can be invalidated in court on numerous grounds, he observes. Others can easily be "invented around." Still others might be valid, yet not infringed under the particular circumstances.......
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