Microsoft and open source patents

Microsoft believes that Linux and open source software violates 235 of its patents and it wants violators to pay up. The company for years has been bashing the open source community and this latest move may well be the bloodiest battle yet.

Which patents have allegedly been violated?

Microsoft's legal general Brad Smith gave a broad breakdown of the alleged violations during an interview with Fortune magazine, but has not detailed specific patents that have been violated. Smith said the Linux kernel violates 42 patents and the operating system's user interface violates 65. The Open Office application suite violates 45 patents and open source e-mail applications infringe on 15. Other open source software applications infringe on 68 patents.

What is the official word from Microsoft?

Microsoft's Intellectual Property team is handling this issue and it isn't saying anything beyond a statement released to the press by Horacio Gutierrez, vice president of intellectual property and licensing: "Even the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, noted last year that Linux infringes well over 200 patents from multiple companies. Gutierrez cited this passage. The real question is not whether there exist substantial patent infringement issues, but what to do about them. Microsoft and Novell developed a solution that meets the needs of customers, furthers interoperability and advances the interests of the industry as a whole. Any customer that is concerned about Linux IP issues needs only to obtain their open source subscriptions from Novell."

How does this relate to Microsoft's partnership with Novell last year?

As part of the deal, the two agreed not to sue each other's customers over patent and intellectual property infringements. Dell joined the pair a few weeks ago. The Covenant to Customers ruffled major feathers in the Linux and open source community for its many loopholes and missing details and led to accusations that Novell was bamboozled again by Microsoft.

How did the open source community react?

Richard Stallman, the leader of the Free Software Foundation, says the next version of the GNU General Public License, GPL 3.0, which is nearing final draft, will be crafted to block the type of patent/IP deal Novell and Microsoft cut.

What is at stake for users?

Users found to be using software that infringes on patents could be held liable, but first Microsoft will have to reveal the specific patents it is talking about. Until then, Microsoft is turning up the heat but nobody is about to get burned. Users should check their contracts from vendors that supply open source products. Vendors such as Red Hat and Sun offer limited forms of protection.

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