In Microsoft claims software like Linux violates its patents, Fortune's Roger Parloff writes about Microsoft's assertions that free software violates its patents. It's a wide ranging piece with frequent quotes from Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith. And of course, it has set off a predictable storm of abuse from free software advocates.
Really, who couldn't see this one coming?
For over a decade, the team in Redmond has been accumulating software patents. First, it was defensive. Then the company discovered how much leverage patents could give them in a negotiation. And finally, they've now apparently embarked on a strategy to use them competitively.
Fortune enumerates the options Microsoft had open to them.
- do nothing, effectively donating them to the development community. Obviously that "wasn't very attractive in terms of our shareholders," Smith says.
- start suing other companies to stop them from using its patents. That was a nonstarter too, Smith says: "It was going to get in the way of everything we were trying to accomplish in terms of [improving] our connections with other companies, the promotion of interoperability, the desires of customers."
- begin licensing its patents to other companies in exchange for either royalties or access to their patents (a "cross-licensing" deal).
They chose the licensing option, which, in point of fact was the only rational option. Licensing reinforces the value of the portfolio they have accumulated, while providing a revenue stream to shareholders.
It's a tricky path to tread. It requires extracting a royalty from Fortune 500 corporations for non-Microsoft software in use inside those companies, and it will only work so long as all of the companies being approached pay up. When one chooses to fight in court, the entire strategy can unravel, as the validity of the patents are tested. This strategy could be a pre-cursor to a general amnesty, or to an attempt to mount an attack directly on the GPL controlled Linux kernel.
For the record, I'm a believer in software patents, as well as many other kinds of intellectual property protection. Software is as complex a machine as any physical machine, and those who engineer it should have the right to decide how it's used. That's one reason that iotum is very careful about any use of GPL licensed code in our products.