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Microsoft, Linux, Patents, Open Source and Communists

Well, now that's a headline that ought to get picked up by a search engine or two (or one, most importantly). Google News, we'll scale your castle walls one way or another! Microsoft! Linux! Patents! Open source! Communists! We're going to go hash-tag crazy when we post this one on Twitter...

Anyway, the post-Labor Day (here in the U.S.) news is that something called the Open Invention Network -- or OIN (catchy) -- looks likely to buy a bunch of patents that Microsoft sold earlier this year to a patent-protection company, the CEO of which is pictured here (OK, not really).

Pretty boring, right? Well, not really, because the OIN (couldn't they have found a way to stick a "K" on the end of it?) includes such prominent members as IBM, Red Hat and Sony. And the patents relate to -- cue the suspenseful music -- Linux. Maybe. We think, anyway. Nobody seems to be totally sure at this point, with the possible exceptions of Microsoft, the OIN and Tony Soprano.

Now, as we know, Microsoft has saber-rattled for years now about how Linux violates hundreds of Microsoft patents. But that's not what OIN's acquisition is about, as far as we can tell. First of all, Microsoft doesn't own these patents anymore, so it's unlikely -- actually impossible -- for Microsoft to use them to threaten Linux or Linux vendors.

Beyond that, as Redmond columnist Mary Jo Foley points out, there are a lot of unanswered questions here, and there's a fair amount of confusion about exactly why OIN is so hot to get these patents. The patents themselves appear to be a set that Microsoft purchased from SGI in 2002; there are 22 of them, apparently, and they have to do with (no surprise here) graphics (and, possibly -- or probably -- Linux). Microsoft officials say that Redmond sold the patents because they played no role in the company's future.

So, what's going on here? The folks at the OIN say that they want to protect Linux users from patent trolls. But those trolls don't live in Redmond. In fact, Microsoft seems pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. So, is this a Linux caper with Microsoft lurking in the shadows, or is it just a boring patent transaction?

We don't know, but we're going to stretch this into a double (that's a baseball reference for our non-U.S. friends) by running some long-promised reader e-mails about the Free Software Foundation, our favorite Bolsheviks (just kidding...mostly). As always, to contribute to reader e-mails, send your thoughts to lpender@rcpmag.com.

Writes Greg:

"I don't think and don't believe calling the FSF communist is correct or right. First off, communism has nothing to do with freedom. Wanting to be able to do what you want with something after purchasing it is not wrong and should be the consumer's right. The FSF is not against capitalism. They have no problem with selling free and open source software. The 'Free' in their name is free as in free speech.

"On the other hand, when you purchase Microsoft software, they lay down a bunch of rules on what you can't do with your software. I would say Microsoft borders more on the communist side, especially with tactics used to get to where they are now -- an illegal monopoly, and the Justice Department agreed. How much harm would it cause Microsoft if they continue to sell their software yet make it free? They would still make plenty of money with the ridiculous prices they charge. Currently, what does the cost do? There are parts in EULA that clearly state Microsoft is not responsible if its products screw up your computer. The support is quite limited, as well. You get one or two support calls before they start a tab for paid support. I am a user of both MS and Linux with my background coming being mostly MS."

Greg, thanks for the e-mail. Let's try to take this bit by bit. First off, we at RCPU don't claim to be experts on the FSF, but everything we've heard or read about the organization has had a pretty strong anti-capitalist undertone (including Richard Stallman's speech in Cuba, of all places, a few years back). Still, despite the Bolshevik jokes, when we talk about the FSF being communists, we mean actual communists -- as in people who live on a commune and share everything -- rather than iron-fisted Soviet-style communists.

A lot of what you say about Microsoft is true. The company does sometimes heavily restrict what users can do with the software they've purchased, and Microsoft is very fond of trying to get its software to phone back home to Redmond in something of a big-brother way. (Windows Genuine Advantage, anyone?) Plus, yes, Microsoft is a convicted monopolist. No argument there. But the way Microsoft operates is closer to fascism than communism, except for one thing: There are alternatives to Microsoft. Companies and individuals, now more than ever, can acquire non-Microsoft products if they don't like the way Redmond does business. And they are. (By the way, we are not -- repeat, not -- calling Microsoft a fascist company, although it could lighten some of its policies for users.)

As for Microsoft continuing to sell software yet make it free, we assume you mean free as in open source. The problem, the way we see it, is that ultimately it's intellectual property that makes money. If everything's free (especially in the software industry) and everybody can tinker with it, resell it, whatever...then products have little or no value. Google, a friend to open source, doesn't give away its search algorithms. KFC, as far as we know, still hasn't divulged the Colonel's secret recipe. And when Homer revealed the ingredients of the Flaming Moe on The Simpsons, Moe's Tavern lost its cache -- and its business.

That's all because secrets can be valuable in business. Microsoft knows this. Partners know this. The Free Software Foundation doesn't seem to get it. And while its vision might be lovely and utopian (as the vision of true communism almost always is), it's also completely impractical and unworkable (as true communism usually ends up being).

On the same subject, James writes:

"Reading your article brings to mind a very important practice that Microsoft has implemented, which should make every other OS vendor take notice: They actually search for leaks in their software products to prevent hacking! Name me one other software or OS vendor that has the depth of support and software integrity assurance that Microsoft diligently provides in real time. Even though they took a big hit by releasing Vista as the next big thing, the protection level of their products is second to none. When any of their competitors can match that level, then maybe we can sing a different tune. Just because Apple or UNIX/Linux vendors haven't seen the level of hacking or intrusion that Microsoft has endured, doesn't make them a better choice for operating systems. I say bring on Windows 7, and may the best man win!"

James, we think you're right on, but we'd also like to give third parties and partners an enormous amount of credit for keeping Windows clean and usable. Still, they're part of that support you're talking about -- it comes from Redmond, from third parties and from the channel. And it is pretty hard to beat, even though Microsoft is public enemy No. 1 for troublemakers.

Finally, RCPU e-mail legend Peter (in Australia) weighs in:

"I had a look at that stuff from the 'Free Software Foundation' you posted.  There's only 40 million Linux units out there, and probably not many more UNIX systems, so I don't think Bill's mates have got too much to worry about in their quest for world domination...ha ha.

"However, they [the FSF] certainly raise some fundamental questions (think Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, et al philosophically) about 'freedom of the individual' from being constantly monitored by some big brother. I just assume that everything I write is in the public domain and that I can already be constantly monitored, but most of the time I'm not fussed about that. We all get filmed a zillion times a day just walking around town.

"Come to think of it, the only thing protecting us all from the apparently-benign Google is their corporate slogan: 'Do No Evil.'"   

Peter, we think it's "Don't Be Evil," but that's the same difference. And we all know that some of Google's motives have come into question, to say the least, in recent years. As for the FSF, it does make a lot of valid points about how Microsoft treats its customers and does business, points somebody in Redmond should take to heart. Again, though, it's the generally anti-capitalist tone of just about everything we've seen from the FSF that bothers us. And as for ol' Tom, Ben and their revolutionary friends -- well, many of them were businessmen, and they probably would be much bigger fans of Microsoft than of the FSF if they were around today. Just a guess.

We've promised some specific readers that we'll run their e-mails, and we will; keep watching this space. We'll try to get to more this week. In the meantime, reply, rebut or reinforce at lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on 09/08/2009 at 1:22 PM


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