Much has been written about Microsoft’s allegation of patent infringements in Linux (by which I’m sure they mean GNU/Linux ;-)). I don’t think Microsoft is the real threat, and in fact, I think Microsoft and the Linux community will actually end up fighting on the same side of this issue.
I’m in favour of patents in general, but not software or business method patents. I’ll blog separately some day about why that’s the case, but for the moment I’ll just state for the record my view that software patents hinder, rather than help, innovation in the software industry.
And I’m pretty certain that, within a few years, Microsoft themselves will be strong advocates against software patents. Why? Because Microsoft is irrevocably committed to shipping new software every year, and software patents represent landmines in their roadmap which they are going to step on, like it or not, with increasing regularity. They can’t sit on the sidelines of the software game – they actually have to ship new products. And every time they do that, they risk stepping on a patent landmine.
They are a perfect target – they have deep pockets, and they have no option but to negotiate a settlement, or go to court, when confronted with a patent suit.
Microsoft already spends a huge amount of money on patent settlements (far, far more than they could hope to realise through patent licensing of their own portfolio). That number will creep upwards until it’s abundantly clear to them that they would be better off if software patents were history.
In short, Microsoft will lose a patent trench war if they start one, and I’m sure that cooler heads in Redmond know that.
But let’s step back from the coal-face for a second. I have high regard for Microsoft. They produce some amazing software, and they made software much cheaper than it ever was before they were around. Many people at Microsoft are motivated by a similar ideal to one we have in Ubuntu: to empower people for the digital era. Of course, we differ widely on many aspects of the implementation of that ideal, but my point is that Microsoft is actually committed to the same game that we free software people are committed to: building things which people use every day.
So, Microsoft is not the real patent threat to Linux. The real threat to Linux is the same as the real threat to Microsoft, and that is a patent suit from a person or company that is NOT actually building software, but has filed patents on ideas that the GNU project and Microsoft are equally likely to be implementing.
Yes, Nathan, I’m looking at you!
As they say in Hollywood, where there’s a hit there’s a writ. And Linux is a hit. We should expect a patent lawsuit against Linux, some time in the next decade.
There are three legs to IP law: copyright, trademark and patents. I expect a definitive suit associated with each of them. SCO stepped up on the copyright front, and that’s nearly dealt with now. A trademark-based suit is harder to envisage, because Linus and others did the smart thing and established clear ownership of the “Linux” trademark a while ago. The best-practice trademark framework for free software is still evolving, and there will probably be a suit or two, but none that could threaten the continued development of free software. And the third leg is patent law. I’m certain someone will sue somebody else about Linux on patent grounds, but it’s less likely to be Microsoft (starting a trench war) and more likely to be a litigant who only holds IP and doesn’t actually get involved in the business of software.
It will be a small company, possibly just a holding company, that has a single patent or small portfolio, and goes after people selling Linux-based devices.
Now, the wrong response to this problem is to label pure IP holders as “patent trolls”. While I dislike software patents, I deeply dislike the characterisation of pure IP holders as “patent trolls”. They are only following the rules laid out in law, and making the most of a bad system; they are not intrinsically bad themselves. Yes, Nathan, all is forgiven ;-). One of the high ideals of the patent system is to provide a way for eccentric genius inventors to have brilliant insights in industries where they don’t have any market power, but where their outsider-perspective leads them to some important innovation that escaped the insiders. Ask anyone on the street if they think patents are good, and they will say, in pretty much any language, “yes, inventors should be compensated for their insights”. The so-called “trolls” are nothing more than inventors with VC funding. Good for them. The people who call them trolls are usually large, incumbent players who cross-license their patent portfolios with other incumbents to form a nice, cosy oligopoly. “Trolling” is the practice of interrupting that comfortable and predictably profitable arrangement. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the incumbents at all when you look at it that way.
So it’s not the patent-holders who are the problem, it’s the patent system.
What to do about it?
Well, there are lots of groups that are actively engaged in education and policy discussion around patent reform. Get involved! I recently joined the FFII: Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, which is doing excellent work in Europe in this regard. Canonical sponsored the EUPACO II conference, which brought together folks from across the spectrum to discuss patent reform. And Canonical also recently joined the Open Invention Network, which establishes a Linux patent pool as a defensive measure against an attack from an incumbent player. You can find a way to become part of the conversation, too. Help to build better understanding about the real dynamics of software innovation and competition. We need to get consensus from the industry – including Microsoft, though it may be a bit soon for them – that software patents are a bad thing for society.