Open-source users, companies scoff at Microsoft threats

Supporters say Microsoft's patent claims show that Redmond is worried about open source, Linux competition for long-term business

Open-source supporters are thumbing their noses at Microsoft Corp.'s claim that it will seek royalties from users and distributors on 235 patents it holds for technologies in Linux and open-source software, saying they are not worried about being the target of litigation for patent infringement.

Rather than scare companies away from using or distributing open source, the general consensus is that the company's threats of litigation -- outlined in statements Microsoft executives including CEO Steve Ballmer made to Fortune magazine this week -- prove it's the software giant who is afraid of the competitive threat Linux and open-source software pose to its business long term.

Joe Lindsay, chief information officer of Los Angeles-area mortgage company Secured Funding Corp., said that Microsoft's attempt to cause fear, confusion and doubt may scare some users away from open-source software and Linux in the short term, but ultimately will not stop the momentum the open-source business model has.

"It's like saying I have a big baseball bat, and I'm going to hit somebody," he said of the company's claim it will recover fees from open-source users and companies that have violated patents. "Everyone runs away." But in the long term Microsoft is the one who will suffer from its actions, since the company should be more focused on providing more valuable and innovative products than threatening to sue companies that have outsmarted them.

Linux distributors too were nonplussed by Microsoft's claims, and Novell Inc. -- which struck a broad licensing deal that included paying royalties on Linux to Microsoft last year -- even seemed annoyed. In comments made Monday, Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's vice president of intellectual property and licensing, compared the deal with Novell as a model for how Microsoft wants to settle patent-infringement differences. However, Novell never admitted it was infringing on patents, a point reiterated by company spokesman Bruce Lowry on a company blog Monday.

Red Hat Inc. also weighed in on the battle, saying it is not worried about Microsoft's threats because it has a solid program that indemnifies Red Hat Linux users against patent litigation. "Our confidence in our technology and protections for customers remains strong and has not wavered," the company said in a press statement.

Some users suggested that the same threat of patent litigation Microsoft is holding over open-source users' heads could be turned on the software giant, which itself has used open-source or freely available technology to develop its own commercial products. In fact, there is just as much potential patent infringement in Windows than there is in open source, said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit consortium aimed at promoting the use of the open-source OS.

"Microsoft is certainly not the only owner of patents in this area, and perhaps not even the owner of the largest number of patents in these areas," he said. "Microsoft will need to be careful what it starts, given that it cannot know where this will end."

Secured Funding's Lindsay said that Microsoft's reluctance to publicly disclose which patents are being violated shows it may not have as strong a case as it would like the industry to believe. He said since the Unix code on which Linux is based preceded Windows, Microsoft may have actually patented technologies in Linux that previously existed, and so those patents would be deemed invalid by the courts.

Lindsay, Zemlin and others also said they believe Microsoft is exploiting the patent system in the U.S. to buy time as it tries to compete in an industry where it is no longer a thought leader. The company has held on to its traditional business model of selling software licenses too long as new, more successful business models -- such as providing software for free and earning revenue on services, and selling ads to support online services -- have emerged, they said. Now the company is scrambling to catch up and hopes collecting license fees on patented technology will be a successful business model in the interim.

Lindsay cited open-source projects and companies such as Google Inc. as the sources of most innovation in the last several years, and said Microsoft has been too slow to adopt new business models other companies have used to move the technology industry forward. "Their business model is fundamentally changing and Microsoft is using the courthouse to extend their old way of doing business," he said.

Zemlin was more blunt, calling Microsoft's "posturing" as "empty threats from a scared giant whose monopoly is being challenged."

Charles Merriam, an independent consultant and entrepreneur in Saratoga, California, who uses OpenOffice.org and Open Source Linux Desktop rather than Microsoft Office and Windows, also suggested that Microsoft is feeling the pressure from more nimble competitors, and is trying to cover its own inability to compete by attacking competitors. "It's just like with SCO Group -- when they no longer had a product to sell, it started suing people," he said. "It looks like Microsoft is throwing in the towel on trying to be innovative."

However, Merriam said that while larger companies are less likely to worry about Microsoft's threats, some startups might be afraid that the company could sink their businesses by suing for patents, and may consider moving offshore to escape possible litigation.

China Martens in Boston and Robert Mullins in San Francisco contributed to this article.

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