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Microsoft: still a business of threats?


MicrosoftÕs newish patent policy is quite good but does not go far enough


'Net Insider By Scott Bradner , Network World , 07/29/2008


The obvious thought came to me while writing last week's column ("SCO Group: Its future is all used up") that about the only folk (other than the deluded and amoral management of the SCO Group) that want the SCO Group effort attacking Linux and other open source initiatives to succeed is Microsoft. So I decided to explore that side in this follow-up column, but a bit of reading led me to the conclusion that things are not as simple as they appear.


For years Microsoft has been claiming that Linux has been stealing its intellectual property rights (IPR, i.e., patented technology).


The obvious, and sometimes stated, intent of this was to make corporate IT buyers decide that Microsoft technology was the legally safe way to go since there might be lawsuits in the wings. This Microsoft effort has seemingly attempted to exceed the effort by The SCO Group in the sleazy department.


Microsoft claimed that the Linux development community was knowingly stealing Microsoft IPR and broadly implied that Microsoft might come after Linux users some day. However, Microsoft did not spell out what the technology was so that the Linux community could stop "violating" Microsoft's rights. (See "Microsoft: Delaying product, spewing FUD.")


While researching for this column I belatedly figured out that a year and a half ago Microsoft took what appears to be another tack. It released the Microsoft Open Specification Promise, an irrevocable promise that says anyone can "make, use, sell, offer for sale, import, or distribute" any software that implements any of a long list of specifications that might infringe on Microsoft IPR and Microsoft will not sue them. That is, unless the maker sues Microsoft first over Microsoft implementing the same specification. No licenses are needed -- just don't sue them. And, more recently, Microsoft announced that it was supporting the Apache Software Foundation.


Microsoft's good-sized list includes about 135 RFCs, six IETF Internet drafts and over 120 non-IETF specifications. The aim, according to Microsoft, is "to reassure a broad audience of developers and customers that the specification(s) could be used for free, easily, now and forever." Good stuff, as far as it goes.


I am puzzled by some of the specifications on the list that predate Microsoft's interest in the Internet by quite a bit. In fact, they predate any U.S. patents listed on the Patent Office Web site as being assigned to Microsoft, so I do not know how the company could have IPR that applies to it. Also, the list, while large, is not universal.


I haven't seen an announcement from Microsoft that it was no longer going to threaten Linux users with patent problems – the company was still threatening a year after the Open Specification Promise was published (see "Microsoft: Invisible patents as a uniform"), so it does not seem to have changed stripes entirely. I haven't seen an overt threat from Microsoft in a while, but it would be nice if the company would simply get out of the business where it refuses to say what a threat is based on.


Disclaimer: I haven't seen Harvard running a threat-based business nor seen any opinion from the university about those that do, so the above mixed response is from me.


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