Microsoft has announced that they’ll be suing open-source software companies, developers and even users for patent infringementâ€”on 235 patents.
How will this affect you? If a court finds that these programs do infringe upon MSFT’s patents, programs like Linux, Mozilla, OpenOffice.org, Apache, Drupal, or Joomla will no longer be available. Microsoft anticipates collecting royalties from distributors and users. (Over half of the Fortune 500 uses Linux.) Potentially, this could trickle down to even small, private users, though Steve Ballmer declined to address the subject.
Forbes.com’s article on this is just great. I mean, the title is “Microsoft takes on the free world.” I love it. Plus, they have a picture of Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation, is straight out of The Ten Commandments.
Okay, so Forbes.com’s article also takes a good hard look at the subject. Another reason it’s good. One important point Roger Perloff makes:
[L]ast month . . . the Supreme Court stated in a unanimous opinion that patents have been issued too readily for the past two decades, and lots are probably invalid. For a variety of technical reasons, many dispassionate observers suspect that software patents are especially vulnerable to court challenge.
It’s not time to panic quite yet. Another interesting point the Forbes.com article makes is that, if the courts do find that these patents have been infringed upon, the Open Invention Network might turn around and sue Microsoft. The OIN is made up of Microsoft rivals (and erstwhile partners) IBM, Red Hat, Novell, Sony, Phillips and NEC, who have basically come together to share patents that the might eventually be able to sue Microsoft for.
I think the overall debate stems from an underlying theme in many intellectual property cases today. The free information culture fostered by the Internet has changed the copyright and patent landscape in many ways. If they end up in court, these decisions may shape the future of the information economy.