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Ballmer: FOSS Apps Violate 235 Microsoft Patents

Ballmer: FOSS Apps Violate 235 Microsoft Patents

by , 10:15 AM EDT, May 14th, 2007

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been patent finger-pointing and now has his sights on free and open-source software, or FOSS. Mr. Ballmer is claiming that FOSS applications, including the Linux operating system and Office productivity suite clones, violate 235 different Microsoft owned patents, according to CNN Money.

Mr. Ballmer stated "We live in a world where we honor, and support the honoring of, intellectual property." He added that FOSS software developers must "play by the same rules as the rest of the business. What's fair is fair."

How Microsoft plans to address these alleged patent infringements, however, is unclear. Microsoft can't pressure the software developers into paying patent royalty licensing fees since the nature of the GNU General Public License that governs most of these applications actually prohibits patent licensing.

But the Free Software Foundation contends that Microsoft's patent claims are meaningless, and that applications are merely mathematical algorithms and as such aren't patentable at all. The fact that the company is claiming so many of its patents are being violated is irrelevant as well.

Eben Moglen, counsel to the Free Software Foundation and the head of the Software Freedom Law Center, commented "Numbers aren't where the action is. The action is in very tight qualitative analysis of individual situations." Should Microsoft take its patent violation claims to court, Mr. Moglen contends that patents can be invalidated on many grounds, and for those that can't, there are often ways to work around them.

Another problem facing the Redmond-based company is exactly who to take to court. Many FOSS applications are developed by loose-knit groups and not well defined and easily identifiable companies. Add to that Microsoft's claim that the patent violations span across a wide range of applications: The company claims that the Linux kernel violates 42 patents, the Linux graphical interface violates 65, the Open Office suite - which is available for several platforms including Mac OS X - violates 65 patents, email applications are violating 15, and other assorted applications violate another 68 patents.

Since tracking down all of the developers would be next to impossible, Microsoft may be posturing to try pressuring big companies that use or distribute FOSS applications into cross-licensing patents. The company has already struck a deal with Novell that involves cross-licensing and even has Microsoft providing "coupons" that companies can redeem for Novell Linux distributions.

Ironically, by offering the Linux "coupons," the Free Software Foundation sees Microsoft as a Linux distributor, which binds the company to the GNU General Public License. As such, that means Microsoft's actions could be violating the licensing terms.

The company also has to deal with the fact that some of the end users it may target are also Microsoft clients. Upsetting them could ultimately work against the Windows Vista developer by fostering ill will with the companies that are using its products. How far Microsoft is willing to push it clients remains to be seen. "That's not a bridge we've crossed," Mr. Ballmer claimed.

The Free Software Foundation, however, is already working on changes to it software licensing terms to help prevent Microsoft from strong-arming clients and developers. Mr. Moglen stated "The free world says that software is the embodiment of knowledge about technology, which needs to be free in the same way that mathematics is free. Everybody is allowed to know as much of it as he wants, regardless of whether he can pay for it, and everybody can contribute and everybody can share."

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