Players in potential patent battle hunker down

Players in potential patent battle hunker down

With lines in the sand being drawn in Microsoft's beef over open source and alleged patent infringement, potential major players in this battle are keeping their cards close to the vest at this juncture.

Requests to speak with Microsoft, Red Hat, and the Free Software Foundation were rebuffed on Monday, with all three instead releasing statements or deferring until Tuesday. Only Novell, which has forged a collaboration agreement with Microsoft over Linux, was up front in discussing the issue.

Microsoft in a published report Monday said free software, including Linux, violates 235 Microsoft patents and that the company wants compensation. Asked to elaborate on Monday, Microsoft would only release a statement attributed to Horacio Gutierrez, vice president of intellectual property (IP) and licensing.

"Even the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, noted last year that Linux infringes well over 200 patents from multiple companies. The real question is not whether there exists substantial patent infringement issues, but what to do about them," Gutierrez said.

"Microsoft and Novell already developed a solution that meets the needs of customers, furthers interoperability, and advances the interests of the industry as a whole. Any customer that is concerned about Linux IP issues needs only to obtain their open source subscriptions from Novell," said Gutierrez.

When asked to cite specific patents being infringed, Microsoft provided only the following list:

  • 65 patents in Linux GUIs
  • 15 patents in e-mail
  • 42 patents in Linux kernel
  • 45 patents in OpenOffice
  • 68 other patents that read on open source

"For context, the typical patent lawsuit involves only about two patents," Microsoft said.

Asked to comment about Microsoft's patent arguments, a Free Software Foundation representative said that would happen on Tuesday.

"We're preparing a statement about that which we'll be releasing tomorrow. I don't have anything to say at this time," said Brett Smith, license compliance manager at the foundation.

Red Hat, in rejecting a request for an interview, referred to a blog on the issue, entitled "Deploy with Confidence."

"Red Hat has led and continues to lead the open source industry in promoting innovation and making free and open source software easier to consume. This includes providing our clients with the most comprehensive open source intellectual property protections through our Open Source Assurance program. Our confidence in our technology and protections for customers remains strong and has not wavered," the company said.

"The reality is that the community development approach of free and open source code represents a healthy development paradigm, which, when viewed from the perspective of pending lawsuits related to intellectual property, is at least as safe as proprietary software. We are also aware of no patent lawsuit against Linux. Ever. Anywhere," Red Hat stated.

Novell, meanwhile, has an arrangement with Microsoft in which the two vendors agree never to sue each other's customers over patent infringement, said Justin Steinman, Novell director of product marketing for Linux and open source.

But Novell does not believe there are any such infringements of Microsoft intellectual property, Steinman said.

"I want to make it extremely clear. We do not think there are any IP violations in Linux," said Steinman. Novell disagrees with any statements by Microsoft alleging any violations, Steinman said.

The two vendors last November signed an agreement to collaborate in the areas of virtualizing Windows on top of Novell's Suse Linux and vice versa. Also covered were arrangements to manage Windows or Suse from a common management platform and the ability to federate identifies across the two platforms.

Also, the companies agreed to build connectors between the open source OpenOffice platform and Microsoft's Office productivity software, which have different document formats.

As part of that agreement, Microsoft has been steering customers to Novell for support of Suse Linux. This support arrangement has prompted Linux deployments at customers such as Wal-Mart, Steinman said.

Microsoft has in the past displayed animosity toward the open source movement. Its Shared Source initiative, however, allows some users to look at selected pieces of its code. Microsoft also maintains a Web site called CodePlex that hosts open source projects.

In 2004, Jim Gray, a Microsoft engineer, said at a the Software Development Conference & Expo West event in Santa Clara, Calif., that for-profit companies would struggle for a business model amid the presence of free software. Gray was reported lost at sea after sailing off the coast of California in January.

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