November 3, 2006 2:04 PM PST

Microsoft patent peace--or patent war?

Microsoft on Thursday declared a "patent peace" with Novell, the No. 2 Linux seller. But did the company in fact just declare a patent war with the open-source realm?

Microsoft and Novell announced the deal under which Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server and Desktop customers need not fear Microsoft will assert patent rights against them. In addition, Microsoft pledged not to assert patents against unpaid open-source programmers or against any open-source programmers contributing to Novell's OpenSuse.

The companies said they struck the partnership--which also includes technical cooperation to ensure various products interoperate--at the behest of customers. But the extent to which customers are reassured by the deal correlates directly with the extent to which they're worried about the absence of anything similar with Red Hat or any number of other open-source software companies.

In other words, the partnership can be interpreted as an attempt to inject Microsoft's patent values into the open-source world. That move is an affront to open-source businesses that generally share intellectual property, an approach anathema to the proprietary ways of Microsoft.

"I think it elevates the level of fear," said Raven Zachary, an analyst with The 451 Group, and gives new prominence to legal protection. "Indemnification was a hot issue a few years ago, and now it seems to be back."

Microsoft has expressed a fondness for software patents and a desire to profit from licensing them. That patent-centric approach has caused indigestion in the open-source realm at times. For example, Red Hat has forsworn using an open-source version of the Windows NT File System (NTFS) that could ease lives for those whose computers run both Windows and Linux.

"For Microsoft, it's the opportunity to try to take their whispering campaign about intellectual property and bring it out front."
--Mark Webbink, Red Hat deputy general counsel

To be sure, Microsoft's relationship with the open-source movement today is less adversarial and more sophisticated than in the past. The Novell partnership acknowledges that Linux is a force to be reckoned with. Microsoft's Shared Source plan involves some elements of the open-source philosophy. The company this week announced a partnership with Zend, developer of the open-source PHP Web site software. Microsoft has pledged not to sue anyone over a variety of patents involved with Web services.

And representatives of some open-source interests don't think Microsoft's move portends a further attack.

"Is this all things to all people? No. But it's a great first step," said Stuart Cohen, CEO of a multi-company Linux consortium, the Open Source Development Labs. "Obviously we're fairly comfortable that there aren't any IP risks (in using Linux), but it's been something standing over everyone's head."

But that doesn't mean Microsoft suddenly has an urge to help out open-source competitors. Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said Thursday's agreement essentially provides a way to ensure the company's intellectual property preferences have teeth in the open-source world.

"We don't license our intellectual property to Linux--because of the way the Linux licensing, the GPL (General Public License) framework works, that's not really a possibility," Ballmer said. "The cleverness was, how do we get protection and respect for our intellectual property in a world in which that license agreement works?"

For its part, Novell argues that the partnership allays, not heightens, any intellectual-property worries.

"The reality is that the patent concerns are out there. We didn't invent them. This deal actually removes patent concerns for customers wanting to use Linux," said spokesman Bruce Lowry. "And it protects developers from patent challenge by Microsoft . This is good for the community. There's nothing that would stop Red Hat from doing something similar."

Alliance against Red Hat?

But Red Hat--already on the defensive after Oracle's plan to try to undercut the company's Linux support business--has a pessimistic interpretation.

"For Microsoft, it's the opportunity to try to take their whispering campaign about intellectual property and bring it out front," said Mark Webbink, Red Hat deputy general counsel.

It won't work, Webbink argued: "They should have learned a lesson from SCO"--a company that sued Linux companies and users regarding assertions that proprietary Unix technology was improperly used in open-source Linux--"that putting your customer in the middle of the squeeze play is not a good idea for business."

Zachary, though, believes that ultimately Microsoft isn't likely to go after Red Hat for patent infringement. "It would be a mistake," he said. "The public relations nightmare isn't worth the benefit, and it would make the open-source community even more hostile to Microsoft's overtures. It would also likely be a fast track to overturning software patents in the European Union."

Mark Radcliffe, an intellectual property attorney with DLA Piper, sees the move as a straightforward alliance against Red Hat.

"I think that they are picking out a Linux vendor who is weak and trying to drive companies to them, so that the stronger vendors such as Red Hat become less competitive," he said.

See more CNET content tagged:
intellectual property, Novell Inc., open source, patent, open-source programmer


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
Unpleasant business practices
Don't sue, just threaten to sue to divide and
conquer. I would prefer that they sue us. I
would love to defend our work and then trace MS's
chain of software ownership. We have nothing to
hide. The code is open. MS has a LOT to hide.
Posted by Johnny Mnemonic (374 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Another commentary on Microsofts possible motives...
One really basic question... Given Microsofts alleged goals, why DIDNT Microsoft decide to "cooperate" with the largest "Linux" company, "Redhat"..?

Here is a fairly-well thought-out opinion, on "Linspires" site, concerning the possible "hidden agenda".

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>

Honestly, after Microsofts long unethical history, ...their laughable "Get the Facts" campaign, and the clumsy "SCO" charade, you would have to be PRETTY-DARN-DIM to NOT question the REAL-MOTIVES behind this latest move by Microsoft.
Posted by Had_to_be_said (384 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why should one become interested in this "Microsoft patent peace--or patent war" when this appears to issues involving hundreds of flavors of a particular Operating System (Linux) and on the other side - Windows that appears to be perpetual "work-in-progress"; also, both of these having benefited in different ways from IBM OS/2 Warp's (now eComStation) development which in the future will be known as VOYAGER (and under consideration - CASINII) to get users precisely where they wish to BOLDLY GO!

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"Linux vs. Windows NT and OS/2"....
... as was the "battles" of yester-year and what was said by Bernie Thompson:

"Picking an operating system is a dangerous business. You're committing yourself to a couple hours, certainly, or maybe a couple days of manual-reading, file-editing, and hassles. If your real goal was just to get some work done, maybe it would have been simpler to stay with Windows 3.1 and never embark on an adventure in computing.

But, then again, there seems to be a substantial body of computer users who are dissatisfied with DOS and Windows. Some are moving to OS/2, Windows NT, or some other Comdex wonder. Some are even daring enough to wipe out DOS in favor of an anti-establishment system like Linux.

Before you take the plunge, you should know up front what you stand to gain. More importantly, too, what you stand to lose. Here's what lies ahead for you if you want OS/2, Windows NT, or Linux to be part of your future." Read it all here:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Reply Link Flag
article is old but point well taken
Yeah, seems the same arguments go round and round. I meet a lot of IT managers long since tired of the MS upgrade treadmill but there handlers continue to only stamp projects with the Microsoft brand of approval.

There different OS based on the Linux kernel (each distribution is truly a seporate OS) have evolved greatly from the days of winNT and Warp. I had Kubuntu running off a live CD in about ten minutes including .ISO burn time and that includes the boot to a GUI desktop with complete application feature support. Install to the hard drive took about fifteen minutes after answering five questions but you can also run it off the CD as a Live Boot too.

As for your link; thank you. It's been printed and archived with other news of interest.
Posted by jabbotts (492 comments )
Link Flag
MSharks to Linux Penquins: Buh Bye...
Steve "JAWS" Ballmer is sinking his multi-rows of sharp teeth
deep into the Linux World with this "pact with the devil" deal.

Illegal monopolies fiercly hate competition &#38; independance, no
matter who it is or how small it is, they are nervous that the Evil
Empire will crumble around them...

Just like Microsith did with Java &#38; their "improved MS-Java"
prgramming that was a slimy attempt to kill "write once / work
anywhere" Sun Java, they were diluted &#38; manipulating a source
of programming that they perceived as a threat to their
Microsith Empire.

Never, never, never trust the BillyBot or BaldyBot when it comes
at you with a handshake &#38; a big grin baring their JAWS
teeth...You will be assimulted or eaten alive.

Just a smoke &#38; mirrors ploy to keep the US DOJ happy, get the
EU of their a$$ &#38; kill the competiton to rake in the big bucks.

Bye bye Linux...
"Microsoft, where do you want to go today?"
Posted by Llib Setag (951 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Peace . . . with the Mansons?
Please. It is a tactic. Run for the hills. The only posture for engagment with Redmond is Mutually Assured Destruction.

Assume MS needs to annihilate you and wakes up every day dreaming and scheming to assure your destruction.

Assume there is only one end-state possible. You or them alone still breathing on a bloody, scortched battlefield.

Novell needs to find out where MS thinks it is weak and open for annihilation in terms of IP defensibility and then recruit Sun and the ROW to join in the task of assembling the case that would shatter MS.

The only reason MS would offer peace is if they know they are exposed somewhere. If that exposure exists, ROW should work to exploit it to the destruction of MS.

Trying to reason with MS is like attempting to reason the creature in Alien. It only knows one modality: kill everything and eat it. No use burning cycles making nice with something that only wants to chew your face from your skull.

Posted by Sumatra-Bosch (526 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Microsoft Patents? Give me a break.
Does anybody really believe that Microsoft has any enforceable patents for any technology that remotely impacts on Linux? This is a company that has never invented anything worthwhile. DOS was a rip-off of CPM, Word was a rip-off of Wordperfect, Windows is a rip-off of Macintosh, Windows NT was a rip-off of Unix and OS/2, SQL Server was purchased from Sybase, Internet Explorer is a rip-off of Mozilla, C# is a rip-off of Java, and so on and so forth. The only things that Microsoft can be said to have genuinely invented are moronic technologies like integrating the web browser and media player with the OS, building ActiveX support into Internet Explorer, and Passport authentication -- things that smarter (or more ethical) developers would consider absolutely laughable.
Posted by bw94382 (24 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Since you ask...
Not commenting on the merits of the patents (that would be a whole different can of worms), MS has patents on the FAT file system (specifically the changes that allow long file names and larger media sizes than the older pre-Windows 95 versions allowed) and the NTFS file system. Those are not the only patents by far but perhaps more relevant.

Now about your rant:

"DOS was a rip-off of CPM" -- DOS started life as a clone of CP/M but MS didn't write it, they bought it from it's author and then modified it to meet IBM's requirements. The IBM PC was also available with CP/M so ask yourself "Why did DOS prevail over CP/M?"

"Word was a rip-off of Wordperfect" -- The DOS version of Word was just another also-ran bit player living in the shadow of Wordperfect during the DOS days but the Windows version of Word was a giant step ahead of anything Wordperfect had to offer and at $100 for Word vs $550 for Wordperfect it was a great bargain too. I know, I bought and used both back in the day.

"Windows is a rip-off of Macintosh" -- The first version of Windows predates the first version of the MacOS. MS did indeed copy a number of things from the MacOS in later versions of Windows but they made some of their own innovations along the way that Apple hasn't been shy in copying either.

"Windows NT was a rip-off of Unix and OS/2" -- MS wrote the first versions of Unix for the PC which they later sold to another company. They also co-wrote OS/2 with IBM and were developing the "Portable OS/2" when Windows took off as a highly successful product. It was in the settlement of the disagreement with IBM over including the Windows API into the new product that IBM took the original OS/2 code as their's while MS took the portable OS/2 project and made it into Windows NT. For the record NT most resembled VMS though it could also run OS/2 and Posix (a standardized Unix) applications.

"SQL Server was purchased from Sybase" -- Got that one right but compare the current version of MS's SQL Server to Sybase and you'll see that MS has taken the product far beyond it's Sybase roots.

"Internet Explorer is a rip-off of Mozilla" -- Totally wrong, MS licensed the Mosaic code and based IE on that code base until IE 4.0 which was a rewrite. Netscape was an original creation based on Mosaic as well but the simple fact is that IE isn't a rip-off of Mozilla.

"C# is a rip-off of Java" -- MS invested heavily in Java and tried to license it properly only to be violently rebuffed by Sun. So MS took their investment and made something of value from it. However C# is no more of a rip-off of Java than Java is of C++.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Link Flag
Your ignorance is Showing
Okay first DOS was a very different OS from CPM and hardly a rip off of it. As for Word there where a TON of Word Processors out there as good as WP, so I think being specific is a bit unfair. Also all of them where similiar since there is only so many things that could be done with a Word processor.

As for the rip off of the OS, the idea actually came from another OS idea, I do not recall it now that BOTH where based on and was never published.

IE a ripoff of Mozilla, FUNNY. BOTH browsers trace their design back to a program called Mosaic. Also IE came out BEFORE ANY program named Mozilla. At the time Microsoft was working against Netscape.

I would go on but your ignorance of the hsitroy of computers and this software showes your conclusions are not viable since they have no basis in fact, just pure MS bashing.
Posted by Computer Ed (2 comments )
Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.