Show Us the Code

by Glyn Moody

As I've noted before, I am something of a connoisseur of Microsoft's FUD against open source, in part because I believe each successive FUD-flavour of the month gives important hints about the evolution of the thinking and strategy within the company. The latest development in this area, which revolves around patents, is no exception – not least because I think people are drawing the wrong conclusions from it.

The patent issue has really come to the fore through last year's Microsoft-Novell agreement. This may be the most high-profile instance of Microsoft insinuating that GNU/Linux is infringing on some of its patents, but it is by no means the only one. Around the same time, Microsoft expressed a desire to enter into a similar relationship with Red Hat. Of course, neither move was out of the goodness of its heart: the more organisations that sign up to such deals, the greater the implicit support for the idea that there are indeed infringements that need to be covered.

Given Red Hat's reluctance to fall for this trap, it is no surprise that Microsoft has started casting its net wider by approaching companies whose use of GNU/Linux is only incidental. These include Fuji Xerox and Samsung, both of whom have announced patent agreements with Microsoft that explicitly mention Linux:

Fuji Xerox will obtain access to Microsoft patents for Fuji Xerox’s existing and future product lines, including products that incorporate proprietary source and open source software, such as Linux.

Samsung will also obtain coverage from Microsoft for its customers' use of certain Linux-based products.

One of the most original interpretations of these moves comes from Matt Asay, building on an insight of Mark Shuttleworth:

Microsoft's patent game is designed to force open source to compete on its terms. Mark made a hugely salient point on this: Microsoft has been a disruptive force in the software industry by building complex software and essentially giving it away for peanuts.

In turn, it is being challenged by open source, which is free. The difference, as Mark said, between $0.00 and $0.01 is huge. And that difference is not flattering to Microsoft, even despite its lower price points than its fellow proprietary competitors.

But if Microsoft can place a patent tax on all open source software or, at least, the open source software most threatening to its business, then it provides an effective way to inhibit open source disruption.

At first sight, this is an attractive idea, because it sits so comfortably with the hacker worldview that sees open source as special and inhabiting a completely different universe from that of proprietary, non-free products. It also confirms that the “free as in freedom