From vs. to + for Microsoft and Linux

Yet it would be a mistake to hold Jefferson, himself an inventor, to that single statement, since his positions on patents and attitudes toward them changed over the years.

Same with Bill Gates. In 1991, Bill wrote:

PATENTS: If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. I feel certain that some large company will patent some obvious thing related to interface, object orientation, algorithm, application extension or other crucial technique. If we assume this company has no need of any of our patents then [they] have a 17-year right to take as much of our profits as they want. The solution to this is patent exchanges with large companies and patenting as much as we can.

Which they've done. Perspective: in 1987, Microsoft had one patent. By 2005, it had 3,955. In January 2015, the company bragged:

Microsoft and its employees have worked hard to build and maintain a world-class patent portfolio, which now includes more than 59,000 US and international patents, and over 36,000 pending patent applications. Drafting and prosecuting high-quality patent applications is key to that success.

Our patenting strategy, in terms of how, when and where we choose to protect those innovations, is closely aligned to Microsoft's overall business strategy. Microsoft is committed to transparency of patent ownership and all patents owned directly by either Microsoft or MTL or through subsidiaries are publicly available via the Open Register of Patent Ownership.

Microsoft will continue to be one of the top patent filers in the world, which reflects our commitment to the tremendous amount of R&D and innovation that goes into creating products for our partners and our customers.

A friend at Microsoft many years ago explained to me that the main reason for a large company to hold a patent portfolio was not to license or cross-license, but instead to participate in what he called "nuclear arms dealing", most of which consists of "trades": private agreements that open business opportunities unimpeded by patent-based threats. Kind of like, "I'll let you work on my land if you let me work on yours."

There are also moves that don't involve any second parties. The first party simply opens market opportunities by telling the world that a patented invention is free for the taking. Perhaps the best example of that is Ethernet, which won in the market over IBM's Token Ring and General Motor's Token Bus, because Ethernet's patent holders—Xerox, Digital Equipment Corp. and Intel (nicknamed "DIX")—declared Ethernet an open standard. This was at the urging of Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet's primary inventor, an inveterate critic of open source whose own mind changed over the years.


Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal