Monday, May 14, 2007

Micro$oft Going Against Linux

Here's another one to file under "no surprise."
(Fortune Magazine) -- Free software is great, and corporate America loves it. It's often high-quality stuff that can be downloaded free off the Internet and then copied at will. It's versatile - it can be customized to perform almost any large-scale computing task - and it's blessedly crash-resistant.

A broad community of developers, from individuals to large companies like IBM, is constantly working to improve it and introduce new features. No wonder the business world has embraced it so enthusiastically: More than half the companies in the Fortune 500 are thought to be using the free operating system Linux in their data centers.

But now there's a shadow hanging over Linux and other free software, and it's being cast by Microsoft. The Redmond behemoth asserts that one reason free software is of such high quality is that it violates more than 200 of Microsoft's patents. And as a mature company facing unfavorable market trends and fearsome competitors like Google, Microsoft is pulling no punches: It wants royalties. If the company gets its way, free software won't be free anymore.

The conflict pits Microsoft and its dogged CEO, Steve Ballmer, against the "free world" - people who believe software is pure knowledge. The leader of that faction is Richard Matthew Stallman, a computer visionary with the look and the intransigence of an Old Testament prophet.
Let's see, if you can't compete, you sue the open sourcers out of existence. I don't mind Micro$oft having patents, but I'm betting that they are following the path of SCO and making the attempt to bludgeon the competition into submission through legal costs. (Haven't seen that tactic anywhere else have we?)
The free world appears to be uncowed by Microsoft's claims. Its master legal strategist is Eben Moglen, longtime counsel to the Free Software Foundation and the head of the Software Freedom Law Center, which counsels FOSS projects on how to protect themselves from patent aggression. (He's also a professor on leave from Columbia Law School, where he teaches cyberlaw and the history of political economy.)

Moglen contends that software is a mathematical algorithm and, as such, not patentable. (The Supreme Court has never expressly ruled on the question.) In any case, the fact that Microsoft might possess many relevant patents doesn't impress him. "Numbers aren't where the action is," he says. "The action is in very tight qualitative analysis of individual situations." Patents can be invalidated in court on numerous grounds, he observes. Others can easily be "invented around." Still others might be valid, yet not infringed under the particular circumstances.

Moglen's hand got stronger just last month when 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.

I'm not sure I agree with his contention that software is a mathematical algorithm. That strikes me as a logic only a lawyer could justify. The Supreme Court decision is interesting, though I don't know to what extent it is relevant here. It's also one of those findings that found the lower court was making findings incorrectly and that they should try again. That isn't an overwhelming win in my book.

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