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Thu 17 May 2007 09:40 AM

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Patience with patents pays

Microsoft has fired a clear shot to the open source industry, explains Peter Branton.

Trying to get people interested in patent issues can, frankly, be something of a thankless task. However, Microsoft's latest piece of sabre rattling on the issue is worth a second look.

In an interview with Fortune magazine, Brad Smith, Microsoft's top lawyer, warns that open source software has violated no less than 235 of the firm's patents. The Linux kernel alone violates 42 patents; its user interface and other design elements infringe 65; OpenOffice.org accounts for another 45; while various other packages infringe a further 83 Microsoft patents between them.

Now, when a company such as Microsoft produces such a detailed list it is pretty clear that this is not something executives noticed in passing; this is a clear shot across the bows of the open source industry (the usage of another military metaphor is intentional, Microsoft is not playing here).

The obvious concern such talk of patents raises with customers is ‘am I going to have pay out in royalties to this firm?' - in which case that free software package might not start looking so free after all.

Is this view realistic? Following on from the patent deal Microsoft struck last year with Novell, the Redmond firm began selling SuSe Linux customers coupons to permit its usage. Customers that have agreed to buy the coupons include AIG, Credit Suisse, HSBC, Nationwide and Wal-Mart.

So clearly such manoeuvring will concern some customers, others might decide not to bother deploying it at all.

For open source software proponents, talk of patents is just plain wrong: the very idea of them goes against the fundamental philosophy of sharing technology ideas.

But if customers are afraid to use software developed by such open sharing of ideas then the movement might find its momentum blunted considerably - and that is hardly an outcome that will upset Microsoft.

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