Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Column: Sturm und Drang

It can never hurt to get yourself a Communications 101 course. I did get some more than that during my university years, but let’s stick to a simple model of communication. You have a sender/transmitter, the message and the receiver. To make it somewhat more complete: also take the medium into account as the carrier of the message. Just keep this model in mind with basically all forms of communication and see how much the wiser you get.

Who could avoid the uproar in the Linux world in the last week. The Big Enemy from Redmond U.S.A., known in some circles as Microsoft -the near monopolist in desktop operating systems- went a bit “loco” in the head and accused Linux of patent infringes. 235 infringes! This was such a veil attack that forceful countermeasures were warranted. A how forcefully the responses were on numerous websites and weblogs. A real “Sturm und Drang” with a sprinkle of primal scream  here and there.

Back to Communications 101. The article that caused the uproar was an interview of Fortune reporter Roger Parloff with some Microsoft head hotshots Brad Smith en Horacio Gutierrez. What was the medium or carrier? The CNN Money website!. Indeed, the number one website for hardcore IT-news. Not! The message was never intended for the Linux world, but for Corporate America, to the CEO’s and board rooms of the Fortune 500 companies (or the wannabe’s and wanna-be-there’s). In the U.S.A.. Why is this important? First, we do well to realize that litigation is an integral part of the business warchest of American corporate culture. It is an acceptable instrument and one no company will want to blunt in public. The shareholders accept nothing less than a company willing to do everything to legally protect their interests.

What was the message for Corporate America? The description of the Linux world is a tale in itself. Richard Stallman was presented as someone with a heartfelt loathing for patents -considered part of the life blood for companies and their R&D departments- and the look and lack of flexibility of and Old Testament prophet. The reporter makes a side remark about Eben Moglen that he is professor in the history of political economy. Short translation: Moglen is a Marxist. Stallman then appears as accommodating as Bin Laden. Since Fortune refused to comply with Richard’s demand to be consistent in the use of GNU/Linux he did not cooperate in preparation for the article. And then the world of Linux itself. Ridiculous, it is an amorphous mass of developers and companies and nobody can be held accountable. No one is accountable!!! That must some communist ragtag band. The article really pulled out all old images of Capitalism versus Communism. Why did the reporter not present the CEO’s of IBM, Canonical or Red Hat? Imagine, Linux might even appear “salonfähig” (to use another good German phrase) enough for the board rooms.

We -in the Linux world- really want to know specifically which Microsoft patents are violated by our favorite operating systems. Personally I am convinced that I violate one or more patents when I open my eyes in the morning, completely aware that some company had that action patented. Anyway, Microsoft came up with some numbers. Linux kernel: 42 patents, graphical user interface: 65 patents, OpenOffice.org: 45 patents, e-mail: 15, all others: 68. Only 45 infringes for OpenOffice.org? Gee. Maybe the boys and girls in Redmond need to take a closer look because there should me more. The complete OpenOffice.org interface and functionality is so Office97 that it hurts my eyes. Anyway, the accusation is nothing new and we still have the same information we had a year ago.

Is it all bluff? Or can the claims be substantiated? It is part of a poker game. Not with Microsoft and the Linux community as the key players, but with Microsoft and Corporate America who may thin migrating to Linux is a bargain. The majority of the patents appears to focus on the desktop side where Microsoft makes it’s money through Vista and Office. At the same time it also the market place where it can not act too aggressively to push a small, minute competitor away. Now, the server market is a whole different ballgame. Microsoft is meeting tough and fierce competition from Linux and Unix derivates. Sun (with Solaris in the field) is buddy buddy with Microsoft. Novell is playing nice at well, at least for the next couple of years. It is fighting on a par with the other players to get the contracts for the Fortune 500 companies. Linux is not the underdog here. Now, it might not seem nice to present your competition as a group of fundamentalist communist thieves without respect for intellectual property, bit how often does the Linux world refers to Microsoft as some capitalist monopolistic robber baron. That’s also not nice, don’t you think?

Suppose for a moment that Microsoft is correct and that Linux infringes 235 patents. As far as I am concerned Microsoft can make a full disclosure tomorrow in exchange for a promise that we will stop using all code that is tainted. All of it, with no exceptions and no questions asked. No counter litigation. Nothing. I really believe we should deal with these threats by following two established traditions. One is the example set by the Debian project. There has been some criticism about the decision to remove the name and logo of Firefox and Thunderbird due to limiting copyrights, but it does prevent software with any limiting rights entering the repositories. The other example is BSD. In the early days of BSD the developers created a list of code that was not free and wrote new code to replace it. The didn’t fight the position of the rights owner, but focused on making new, free code. How long would this take for the 235 infringes? I have no idea, but it didn’t take the BSD team long when they had to do it and it only consisted of a handful of people. 235 problems to be solved by a worldwide community of hackers in cooperation with multiple big companies. It could take maybe two or three years but it would be done with the tide on our side. Endusers who know why we take one step back now will wait out this period.

Microsoft plays the game well. It’s message was directed at Corporate America, a warning that Linux might be less cheap than some CEO’s think. Maybe the Linux world should remember the Carly Simon song: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you…”.

This column was originally written for the Dutch website Digiplace, a meeting place for Linux users.

Tags: Linux, Microsoft

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One thought on “Column: Sturm und Drang

  1. Joy of joys, you can sign up to be sued by Microsoft:

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