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Linux inner circle thumbs nose at Microsoft's patent bravado

By , Network World
June 18, 2007 01:28 PM ET

Network World - Mountain View, Calif. – The Linux faithful might be staring down the barrel of another round of Microsoft’s legal taunts, but at last week’s Linux Foundation Summit, the reaction was more ho-hum than oh-no.

“The reality is that they are not going to sue a single customer,” says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. “It would not be in their business interest. Microsoft is not going to sue their customers.”

Zemlin says one fact alone – that most corporate Linux users have a mixed environment with Microsoft software – will protect users from the software giant going after them based on patent infringement.

The patent issue has risen to near the top of the Linux Foundation’s list with the signing last year of a cross-licensing patent deal between Novell and Microsoft, in which Microsoft promised not to sue Novell Suse Linux users for patent infringement. Several similar deals have followed since with Linux vendors Xandros and Linspire.

As part of its charter, the Linux Foundation offers legal-protection services for developers to safeguard the future of Linux.

Microsoft claims that Linux violates 235 of its patents, although it has yet to detail what those patents are. Critics contend the issue is meant to create uncertainty among potential corporate Linux adopters.

But Zemlin says the contracts are hurting Linux “only in the fact that Microsoft uses them to create a perception of risk that in reality is not there.”

Many others at the foundation’s first-ever summit -- a collection of some of the most influential Linux kernel designers, software developers and user companies -- took that same position.

“Open source is safe for us to use: That is the message that I want to get out there,” said Chris DiBona, Google’s open-source program manager.

“I would be shocked if Microsoft didn’t have patents that read on Linux,” said Mark Radcliffe, a partner at law firm DLA Piper US who advises companies on intellectual property issues. “Will they enforce them is the question. Companies using Linux don’t have to fear patent suits.”

Radcliffe thinks Microsoft is in a difficult position because it probably couldn’t avoid spearing its own customers with any legal action.

“I think the Microsoft [Novell] deal was a misfire,” he says. “I think what Microsoft’s actions recognize is that Linux is here to stay. And any competitor will use tools to try and slow it down.”

Others say that patents have become a real problem for the computer industry.

“They are sold to the public as being about supporting innovation, but their impact on industry is a nightmare,” says Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu Linux. “They don’t help IBM, they don’t help Sun, and they don’t help Microsoft. But the free software guys are worried about this.”

So worried, that the Free Software Foundation added to its near-final GNU General Public License (GPL) 3.0 specific language that addresses patent deals that could erode the unique open-source qualities of the Linux operating system.

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