A Decade After Trying To Block Open Source Patent Pool From Buying Its Patents, Microsoft Joins The Pool Entirely
from the times-change dept
Almost exactly a decade ago, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, Microsoft invited me to sit down one-on-one with their then Deputy General Counsel for intellectual property, Horacio Gutierrez (who is now General Counsel at Spotify). It was, to say the least, a bizarre conversation in which he repeatedly tried to justify Microsoft’s position on software patents, with us getting into a spirited debate over Microsoft’s ridiculous FUD campaign about Linux. Suffice it to say, while the conversation was fun, we agreed on almost nothing. For a few years, Microsoft had been trotting out claims that Linux violated over 200 of its patents, and kept making these vague threats about it. It never named the patents in question. It never sued. It just kept obliquely warning that those who used Linux might somehow eventually face some patent infringement suits from Microsoft. Some might call this a patent chilling effect. Or FUD. Or a shakedown. No matter what you call it, I stand by the claim that it was despicable.
Partly in response to all this nonsense saber rattling by Microsoft, in 2005 a group of companies who relied heavily on Linux got together to create the Open Invention Network (OIN), which was designed as a giant patent pool, mainly to protect Linux. Basically, all the companies who join agree to license their patents freely for use in Linux (and Linux offshoots) to other members of the network. A large part of the reason for this was to allow various companies working on Linux to freely share patents among each other and protect them from Microsoft-style shakedowns. In 2009, OIN ended up buying a bunch of Microsoft patents for itself to help with its mission — but here’s part of what was amazing about that: Microsoft tried to block the sale, refusing to let OIN be a part of the bidding on those patents. Instead, OIN had to use a third party as a shell bidder so that Microsoft didn’t know that OIN was trying to get those patents.
That’s why the news last week that Microsoft had joined OIN and agreed to freely license all of its patents to every other member in the pool is so shocking. Microsoft’s Erich Andersen, who now holds the role that Gutierrez held a decade ago, admitted quite frankly in his blog post about this decision that many will be surprised, but it represents a real “evolution” in the way Microsoft thinks about Linux. I would say that’s an understatement.
We know Microsoft?s decision to join OIN may be viewed as surprising to some; it is no secret that there has been friction in the past between Microsoft and the open source community over the issue of patents. For others who have followed our evolution, we hope this announcement will be viewed as the next logical step for a company that is listening to customers and developers and is firmly committed to Linux and other open source programs.
Andersen notes that Microsoft has been making a number of moves along these lines lately, which is really good to see:
Joining OIN reflects Microsoft?s patent practice evolving in lock-step with the company?s views on Linux and open source more generally. We began this journey over two years ago through programs like Azure IP Advantage, which extended Microsoft?s indemnification pledge to open source software powering Azure services. We doubled down on this new approach when we stood with Red Hat and others to apply GPL v. 3 ?cure? principles to GPL v. 2 code, and when we recently joined the LOT Network, an organization dedicated to addressing patent abuse by companies in the business of assertion.
I had missed that Microsoft also joined the LOT Network — which is another creative attempt at stopping operating company patents from ending up with patent trolls (by enabling an automatic “license” should those patents be “transferred” to companies outside the network). This is another good step by Microsoft in rehabilitating some of the FUD and trolling activities that it had done in the past. Obviously, much of this is driven by the business realities of the the cloud market and Microsoft’s relative position in these markets these days — rather than some grand enlightenment about how abusive the company was with its patents in the past.
However, it should be recognized and applauded for what it is, which is an absolute step in the right direction. Maybe in another decade we’ll be talking about how Microsoft is going even further and doing an Elon Musk style announcement that all its patents are available to anyone. Wouldn’t that be something?