Meeting Microsoft's Patent Threat

by Glyn Moody

So, the shape of the Great Battle begins to emerge. As reported by Fortune magazine, Microsoft's general counsel, Brad Smith, reckons free software infringes on no less than 235 of the company's patents:

He says that the Linux kernel - the deepest layer of the free operating system, which interacts most directly with the computer hardware - violates 42 Microsoft patents. The Linux graphical user interfaces - essentially, the way design elements like menus and toolbars are set up - run afoul of another 65, he claims. The Open Office suite of programs, which is analogous to Microsoft Office, infringes 45 more. E-mail programs infringe 15, while other assorted FOSS programs allegedly transgress 68.

Although Microsoft has not declared which of its patents free software supposedly infringes, you can bet a fair number will be on utterly trivial and obvious things – remember that a patent has been granted for the progress bar – that are used by practically every software program. Since they are so ubiquitous and trivial, the question then becomes why they were granted in the first place: patents by definition are supposed to be non-obvious as well as possessing novelty and utility. In other words, Microsoft's threat of using software patents to attack open source is part of a far larger problem: the granting of software patents at all.

What is remarkable is that initially there was near-universal agreement that software could not be patented, since it was on a par with mathematics or the laws of nature. But gradually, that view was weakened by a series of court decisions that started to blur the distinction between software and devices that used software. Even in Europe, where software patents “as such