Saturday, February 24, 2007

Microsoft, Linux, and our software choices

Microsoft has been hinting for years that Linux contains code that infringes on their copyright patents, and that one day Microsoft may sue both Linux distributors and their customers.

Microsoft has yet to offer any proof of patent infringement. Many say it's just part of Microsoft's campaign of "F.U.D." against Linux; to create an atmosphere of "Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt" surrounding Linux, which has been making large inroads into the server marketplace, and is now becoming a viable alternative in the computer Desktop software market, too.

Years ago Microsoft poured money into a small software company called SCO, which then started to make legal claims against Linux users. Claiming that Linux uses portions of code that belong to SCO, they insisted that companies who use Linux owe licensing fees to SCO, and began sending letters demanding payment.

A legal battle has ensued, which SCO seems to be losing as time goes on. Yet in the interim, many companies were put off of switching to Linux, because of the uncertainty this publicity created. The publicity from that case has been dying down, as the claims by SCO are being proved to be unsubstantiated. But Microsoft isn't finished yet; new dramas lie ahead:

Ballmer fires off Linux patent warning shot
Steve Ballmer has reissued Microsoft's patent threat against Linux, warning open source vendors they must respect his company's intellectual property.

In a no-nonsense presentation to New York financial analysts last week, Microsoft's chief executive said the company's partnership with Novell, which it signed in November 2006, "demonstrated clearly the value of intellectual property, even in the open source world".

The cross-selling partnership means Microsoft will recommend Suse Linux for customers who want a mixed Microsoft/open source environment. It also involves a "patent co-operation agreement", under which Microsoft and Novell agreed not to sue each other's customers for patent infringement.

In a clear threat against open source users, Ballmer repeated his earlier assertions that open source "is not free", referring to the possibility that Microsoft may sue Linux vendors. Microsoft has suggested Linux software infringes some of its intellectual property but has never named the patents in question. [...]

(bold emphasis mine) When Microsoft signed their deal with Novell, many in the linux community feared that Microsoft would use the deal to set a legal precedent for claiming ownership of portions of the Linux source code.

It's uncertain how far Microsoft would pursue this legally. It's believed by many that Microsoft has no case. But it could take years and years of legal battles to prove this. Microsoft has an army of attorneys, and deep pockets with which to pay them. They have learned a lot via their proxy, SCO. The legal battle itself could do a lot to advance Microsoft's interests, even if they can't halt but only slow down the progress of Linux and the Open Source Software (OSS) movement.

How vulnerable is Open Source Software? OSS licensing claims that anyone may use the source code and alter it in any way they wish, as long as they agree to release the altered source code back into the OSS community for others to use. It's the first license of it's kind, and it has never been challenged in a court of law.

There has been speculation that Microsoft's enormous legal team has been preparing for such a challenge for years. Even if such a challenge did not ultimately succeed, it could imped the progress of Linux during a crucial window of time, where Linux is quickly catching up to Windows in the desktop market, offering real competition. Vista does not appear to be catching on quickly, leaving newcomers like Linux an opportunity to advance if they can deliver the goods, thus draining away Microsoft's market share.

Competition is ultimately the best thing for consumers, but Microsoft is not likely to give up their monopoly without a fight. The question is, how dirty will they fight?

On a related note, the owner of the Linux Distribution Linspire, Michael Robertson, has an essay which explains why having freedom of choice about the software we use is vital to our own continued freedom in so many ways:

You Own Nothing

[...] In the guise of "security", Microsoft is trying to dramatically change the way PCs work. Instead of the owner deciding what software they want to install and run, Microsoft is seizing that power from them. Under the smokescreen of security, they are pronouncing that it is good for Microsoft to decide what software you can use.

It's the ultimate marketing challenge to explain to the world that turning over more control to Microsoft is an improvement that computer users should desire and pay money for. Microsoft has floated a series of hyper-technical sounding initiatives like Palladium and Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB), each time explaining why it's a good thing for Microsoft to decide what software users should use. Earlier this week, Bill Gates talked about how it was like a "black box flight recorder," a not-so-subtle reference to 9/11 designed to tug on emotions. I leave it to others to comment on whether Microsoft has the security track record to decide what software is secure enough for me to be running. I'm more interested in the liberty and cost issues.

Some of you may be wondering why having choice over software is a "liberty" issue. We are quickly moving to a world where every communication, document, photo, song and movie is digitized and living on a PC or PC-like device. Software is the gateway to access parts of those elements. Without control over the software, there is no control of the underlying digital item. Your access can be taken away or modified at anytime. No control means you do not have ownership. This would be like buying a new home and then finding out that someone else has the keys to the front door and they control your access in and out of the home. You'd hardly feel like a home "owner" in such a situation. [...]

(Here is the Linux Desktop of Michael Robertson's Linspire.)

[...] I don't think Apple or Microsoft are intentionally evil. I just think that corporations cannot resist the urge to block competitors and squeeze customers at every turn. If Microsoft controls what software I can run, they will charge a lot of money for that software because I will be locked in. If Apple has control, they will make it only work on their hardware, which won't be cheap. I don't want any company - even Linspire - controlling my digital world. If a corporation controls my PC, my software or how I use my digital property, then I really don't own it. [...]

(bold emphasis mine) The freedom of software choice is closely tied to the freedom of information and data, and how we are allowed to use and distribute it (for specific examples, read the entire essay). Those who control the hardware, software and data formats can control information and even free speech. These are all good reasons for supporting Open Source Software standards, which leave us free to make our own choices. We are not served well by a monopoly, and in this particular realm, there is just too much at stake.

UPDATE 02-26-07: There is now a website called, which contains an open letter to Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, challenging him to publicly pledge his support for Microsoft showing the public the code within Linux that violates their intellectual property by May 1st, 2007.

Failure by Microsoft or Ballmer to do so will be taken as verification that their threats and claims are empty and libelous.

I for one would like to see Microsoft produce their proof, or shut up.


Anonymous said...

The whole thing is to complicated for "mini" brains like me!! May the most honest company win!! (IF they have the best software! lol) AND - I know I can't prove that one either!

Chas said...


I used to work for attorneys that specialized in copyright patents and intellectual property, so I find the subject interesting.

I tried to keep the story simple, but it can get complicated with all the details, people and organizations that are involved.

The bottom line is, I support open source software and open standards, because I feel we need to be sure that we have freedom of choice.

If OSS licensing survives and becomes part of the mainstream, we will still have Microsoft too, they won't disappear. In fact they most likely would start offering better products than they do now, and at more reasonable prices, due to the competition from OSS. I call that a win/win situation. We all win!

Anonymous said...

Hey Chas

Thanks for this recap -- it's a really good summary. I'm going to send the link around to a few people.

Maybe it's just me, but Microsoft seems to be flailing about, trying they're best to convince us that they are still relevant. Of course, the truth may be otherwise.

Anyway, thanks for the article. Well-written and informative.

- Jennifer

Chas said...

I'm glad you liked the summary, Jennifer. It was a rather big topic to squeeze into one post.

And thanks for the link to Shelly Palmer's article, too. He makes some excellent points. Things are changing very fast indeed!