This issue raise its ugly head again as the natural consequence of the infamous Microsoft-Novell agreement. That agreement did nothing for the open-source community, contrary to the claim of Novell and Microsoft. As things are starting to lie down, people starts to examine the consequence of this announcement.
This got heated up because for the first time, Microsoft CEO directly accused Linux of infringing MS IP. From Todd Bishop’s blog:
“… the fact that that product [Linux] uses our patented intellectual property is a problem for our shareholders” — Steve Ballmer
The question is, is this true? For something as complex as Linux, we simply don’t know. Chances are not insignificant that some MS patent are affected. The crunch is, it is rather expensive, for both sides in any IP lawsuit to find out. The same is true for Microsoft Office, Microsoft Windows etc etc and etc. This is the flaw of the current IP regime that should be eliminated, but nonetheless affects everyone.
Thus, the more significant question is will MS take the plunge and sue? And what will happen if MS take the plunge? With the Microsoft-Novell argeement, and Steve Ballmers “invitation” to others to join the party, superficially, the chances of this happen increased. There are only two things that stop Microsoft, or any other parties, from suing: Gaining a bad reputation as a result of suing or suffering a IP retaliation suite. The first one haven’t stopped SCO who feel that they had nothing to lose. Microsoft is unlikely to be in SCO shoe any time soon and it values its reputation more than SCO. One can argue that one aim of Microsoft at present is to create two categories of users, i.e., commerical and non-commercial one. If Microsoft succeeds, than the reward for suing commercial users might outweight the fall out.
Thus, the only realistic protection FLOSS is to retaliate with an IP lawsuit which Microsoft’s brilliant pool of lawyers cannot get it out of. The realistic IP weapon of choice is patent. Unfortunately, FLOSS are generally speaking, patent-poor. Some might argue that IBM and other heavy weight might throw their patent in FLOSS’s defence. Unfortunately, although it is unlikely, IBM and others might do a “Novell dance”. Lets not forget that, not so long ago, Novell was one of the few we thought will use their patent portfolio to protect FLOSS. Suppose IBM and other stick it out using their patents to defend FLOSS, FLOSS is still at risk that they might “cut-and-run” at the last minute, doing a deal with Microsoft or any other litigator, leaving it high-and-dry. In IBM’s defence, if it wants to, it could had just bought SCO rather than fight it, and I appreicate IBM doing so at great cost to itself. Microsoft knows that the patent defence thing is very strong, that is why it is it is offering others to do the Novell dance. With this, Microsoft is trying to chip away this armour.
This IP thing is a brilliant strategy for Microsoft. We are only seeing the beginning of the battle. Right now, chances of collateral damage is too high for Microsoft to take this course of action. The future hinged on whether Microsoft succeed in advancing its idea of two tiers of FLOSS users. If so, commercial users beware. Even if it fails, (lets face it, this is a very tall goal), it will manage to spread FUD to push some business its way. Win-win situation.