February 21, 2007

Ballmer impugns the character of the free/open source world

Author: Joe Barr

Commentary -- At a recent news conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sought to impugn the character of the free/open source world by implying that it had no respect for the intellectual property rights of others. It's not just the enormous ignorance embodied by this duplicitous braggadocio that caught my eye, it's the fact that the claim is coming from a man associated with Microsoft, which is far and away the most notorious IP thief of all time.

One thing should be obvious. It's difficult for an open source project to steal code. After all, access to the code is offered up to all comers. That transparency is the basis for the trust and respect open source has garnered for itself in every corner of the world. Everyone who is curious about the code can see it for themselves. With his assertion, Ballmer has joined SCO's leadership as being among either the stupidest, or the most dishonest, IT execs on the planet. Take your pick. I choose both.

But let's leave that malodorous lie on the ground, where Ballmer tossed it. Instead, let's consult our modern-day oracle (sorry, Larry) and ask Google about Microsoft and patent infringement suits. Wow. Searching with the terms +"sues Microsoft" and +"patent infringement" returns more than 90,000 results.

Remember Stac Electronics?

Obviously, lots of patent infringement suits have been filed against Microsoft over the years. A firm called Stac Electronics was the first big winner, and that case was probably the genesis of the term "Extend and Embrace," which became famous when the Department of Justice used it in its antitrust suit against Microsoft to describe one of its more egregious monopoly practices.

Apple's suit against Microsoft predates the Stac suit, but Apple eventually lost in court. Many feel a secret deal protecting Microsoft against further patent infringement suits by Apple was done at the time Gates ponied up $150 million to help a failing Apple back in 1997.

Don't think all of Microsoft's patent infringements occurred last century. They are stacking up faster than Vista is selling. Let's take a look at the list of those who have sued Microsoft this century: Carlos Armando Amado, TV Interactive Data, Alcatel, VirnetX, ATT, Sun Microsystems, Arendi, TimeLine, 3M, Sendo, Forgent, and Symantec, to name but a few.

Granted, we live in a litigious society and the patent laws (and litigation) are insane, but it's still hard to imagine that anyone from Microsoft, let alone the longtime CEO, would step up to a microphone and question anyone else's respect for IP.

And all those cases have happened in spite of Microsoft's best efforts to force everyone in the PC business to agree not to sue them for patent infringement. That's right, they used the club of Windows 95 licensing to coerce their customers into giving up their rights. As Greg Aharonian noted in 1995:

Last week, the US Department of Justice send out civil subpoenas to 150 software and hardware companies with questions for the companies dealing with their relationship with Microsoft, in particular, Microsoft's practice of requiring companies that license Windows 95 to refrain from bringing patent infringement lawsuits against Microsoft or other licensees. Supposedly some of these companies had complained to the Justice Department that such a licensing requirement was an unfair restraint on their businesses.

There is nothing new here. Microsoft is famous for accusing competitors of what it is doing itself. Today, Microsoft continues to purloin the IP of others, through patent infringement as well as false claims for patents. Ballmer accuses the free/open source software communities of not respecting the IP rights of others? Sorry, but Microsoft's dirty-dealings are as transparent and well-known as its penchant for spreading FUD.

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