Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Then They Fight You’


Tim Lee over at The Technology Liberation Front often has great things to say for software freedom and against software patents. Writing yesterday about the Microsoft/Novell deal and subsequent Steve Ballmer chest-thumping:

I think this is a case where language has become a serious impediment to clear thinking about these issues. When Ballmer says that Linux “uses our patented intellectual property,” he almost certainly does not mean that Linux is in any way derived from Microsoft products, or that the people making Linux have somehow been free-riding off of Microsoft’s R & D efforts. Linux developers have repeatedly stated that Microsoft needs only to point out the infringing lines of code, and the Linux team will rip them out and replace them with code they write from scratch.

Rather, when Ballmer talks about protecting his “patented innovation,” he simply means that Microsoft holds patents that describe features that Linux happens to have. This isn’t surprising because as I’ve tried to document over the last few months, software patents have become so broad that it’s virtually impossible to write software without violating them. Every non-trivial piece of software violates dozens of patents.

In practice, then, Microsoft’s position is that no one may sell an operating system without Microsoft’s permission (or unless you’ve amassed enough patents that Microsoft can’t risk a patent war with you). Ballmer seems to be implying that, in effect, Red Hat and other Linux distros need to pay Microsoft for the privilege of participating in the operating system market. It’s hard to see how giving Microsoft the ability to extort money from their competitors promotes the progress of science and the useful arts.

—Tim Lee, The Technology Liberation Front

Nice Operating System You’ve Got There, It Would Be a Shame if Anything Happened to It”

Which I think is a nice summary of the situation and the problem.

And while it irritates me to think about the dubious value of software innovation by way of vague and obvious patents, I can also take comfort that Microsoft is moving into phase three.

Here to explain phase three is another installment in my series of well-used quotes much-employed in free software discussions:

First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.

Mahatma Gandhi

I think Gandhi said that, but my only source is the internet. In any case, Microsoft has clearly moved into the fighting phase. This is cause for concern in that they have a lot of muscle and they fight dirty with an assortment of clever shivs, but it was inevitable.

And free software will win in the end.


(Thanks to Stacy Cashman for the great pictures, freely shared under the CC-BY-SA-v2.5 license.)