There's been a decidedly heated quality to the latest battle between Microsoft and the Linux/open-source camp. In the most recent skirmish, Microsoft executives were quoted in "Fortune" magazine as stating that Linux and other open-source companies should pay for the many Microsoft patents that the companies are violating. This statement was widely misreported as news that Microsoft would soon begin suing companies that make and use open-source software.
Microsoft claims that the magazine interview wasn't an effort to make headlines, but rather a clarification of a long-standing policy by the company. What Microsoft really wanted, apparently, was for more open-source companies to follow in Novell's footsteps and cross-license patents with Microsoft.
The problem is that Microsoft is suddenly being more specific about the alleged patent violations without actually divulging what those violations are. According to the Microsoft executives quoted in the article, the Linux kernel violates 42 Microsoft patents, the Linux UI violates 65 Microsoft patents, the open-source office productivity suite OpenOffice.org violates 45 Microsoft patents, and other open-source applications violate 83 Microsoft patents. That's 235 total patent violations for those of you keeping score at home.
The reaction from the Linux and open-source communities has been loud, continuous, and--keeping with the spirit of the open-source movement--of varying degrees of clarity. However, Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux and lead developer of the Linux kernel, has a rational request for Microsoft: Torvalds wants to know exactly which patents Linux and other open-source software makers are supposedly violating so that Microsoft's claims can be tested in court. Then, Torvalds said, Linux and other open-source companies can either be cleared of any wrongdoing or rewrite any infringing technology.
Torvalds also has an allegation of his own. "It's a lot more likely that Microsoft violates patents than Linux does," Torvalds told "InformationWeek." Besides, "the fundamental \[operating system\] stuff was done about half a century ago and has long, long since lost any patent protection," said Torvalds.
Microsoft's sputtering responses to these and similar arguments is somewhat telling. The company said it never had any plans to sue the users or makers of open-source software. Yet the company had to know what kind of reaction the Linux/open-source community would have to patent violation numbers when that issue of "Fortune" was published. I think it's time for Microsoft to put up or shut up: If the alleged patent violations are real and can be defended, then Microsoft should reveal them to the world. If the patent violations aren't real or if the company doesn't intend to actually enforce those patents, then stop making baseless accusations.