Over the past few weeks Microsoft has been licensing Linux to a number of its partners, most notably Amazon. Although the idea of Microsoft, a company steeped in proprietary software, licensing open source software is ludicrous it’s not completely unexpected. It’s also not the first time Microsoft has played the Linux patent game and we can expect to see more deals in the future. So what’s going on?
Back in 2007 Microsoft stirred up the open source community by claiming that Linux infringed on more than 200 of its patents. Although the specific patents were never actually revealed it was enough to stir emotions and kickstart a campaign in which Microsoft planned to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt among corporate users.
Last year Microsoft sued TomTom, the GPS maker, claiming it infringed on Microsoft’s patents with its implementation of the Linux kernel in its devices. TomTom eventually settled with Microsoft and agreed to remove the offending technologies, which included file-management code. The fact that TomTom settled with Microsoft gave Microsoft’s claims a modicum of weight.
Then in February Microsoft announced a deal with Amazon which it described as covering a “broad range” of products, including Amazon’s Kindle and Amazon’s use of Linux-based servers. Effectively Microsoft is licensing Linux to Amazon on the understanding that it won’t sue the company for infringing on its alleged Linux-related patents.
This is not unlike the agreement struck between Novell and Microsoft in 2006 in which Microsoft agreed to indemnify Suse Linux users against potential patent suits. That deal too attracted significant ire from the open source community.
The most recent Linux patent deal from Microsoft is a deal with Japanese hardware maker I-O Data. Although the specifics of the agreement are not known the two companies said that the the deal “will provide I-O Data’s customers with patent coverage for their use of I-O Data’s products running Linux and other related open source software.” Again, Microsoft is providing an assurance that it won’t file a patent suit against I-O Data for its use of Linux.
This is not the first time that a company has tried to claim Linux patent ownership and used that against other businesses. SCO is the most obvious example and they even went so far as claim that they owned Unix. SCO, fortunately, was never that successful at winning its claim over Linux and Unix. Microsoft on the other hand is a potentially different case.
For one, Microsoft has a lot more weight than SCO ever had, not only in patent strength but also in influence over vendors reliant on its platform for their business. Microsoft appears to be starting to work through companies that want to work with them and demand that they comply with their own intellectual property claims, especially the ones that relate to open source.
Microsoft is also being selective in who it is going after. Red Hat, for example, is already working with Microsoft on virtualisation but they are doing this without any patent deals. And Microsoft is unlikely to demand Red Hat signs a deal with them, mostly because they are not looking to have their ownership of open source patents contested but rather to sow fear and doubt in the minds of business when it comes to Linux.
Suing a Linux vendor directly over patent claims would be a shortcut to ending up in court. And being hauled into court would force Microsoft to open its books and explain what it is that it claims to own.
For now Microsoft is prepared to rely on compliant partners to create uncertainty around Linux ownership.
It’s a clever strategy by Microsoft and one hard to counteract.
Microsoft licensing Linux << what is going on?