November 16, 2009, 5:52 am
Righteous indignation erupted on the Internet last week following reports that Microsoft had patented sudo, a traditional command-line tool that is widely-used on Linux and some UNIX platforms for selective privilege escalation. Some enthusiastic patent reform advocates predictably held up the patent as an example of the problems that afflict the patent system.
The inherent broadness and ambiguity of software patents is arguably a debilitating problem for the software industry and a matter that calls for evaluation of potential reforms, but we're not so sure that the Microsoft patent in question is as egregious as the critics claim. Granting a patent on the underlying concept of sudo to Microsoft over two decades after the tool was invented by open source developers would indeed be foolish, but that is not at all what happened. A look beyond the short summary of the patent filing and into the body of the patent's actual claims reveals that Microsoft's "invention" is really quite different from the sudo command-line tool. It might, however, cover some technologies that have more recently arrived on the Linux desktop.