Joining A Community Means Accepting Its Norms

The progress of Microsoft towards acceptance into the open source community continues. The Azure team is definitely a force for good in the company, constantly pushing Microsoft’s developer teams to understand how important the Linux platform and open source developer components and tools are to the success of Microsoft’s cloud business. After the partnership with Red Hat, the news they will release SQL Server for Linux, while not surprising to me, was very interesting, as was the news they are joining Eclipse. Continue reading

Azure Loves Linux; What About Microsoft?

The news that Red Hat and Microsoft have reached an agreement about hosting Linux is very welcome. I am delighted for Red Hat here, and see this as a huge sign of the continuing power and growth of open source. It shows that the cloud market is one where and embrace of Linux is table stakes. It also shows that the enterprise market is one where Red Hat is a huge and powerful supplier.

All the same, let’s be clear that all the “Microsoft Loves Linux” hype I saw at SUSECon in Amsterdam yesterday and at other events earlier this year is just not true. Microsoft Azure loves Linux, there is no doubt; it is a basic requirement for them to become relevant on a cloud market dominated by AWS and Linux. They have been out in force at every commercially-oriented open source I have attended this year and have a full-scale charm offensive in place.

But the rest of the company still does not. They still seem to covertly spread open-source-related FUD about LibreOffice here in Europe. They haven’t foresworn making embedded Linux vendors pay for patent licenses of dubious necessity. The Azure business unit is certainly embracing the ecosystem the same as many before them have done so in their steps towards open source. But the Windows and Office business units show no signs of “loving” Linux and only modest signs of co-existing with open source.

It’s hard to change a company as large and profitable as Microsoft quickly. But a significant and binding gesture of goodwill would go a long way to convincing those of us with the scars of Microsoft’s decades of verbal and actual abuse of open source that they mean business.  It’s no secret what the necessary gesture is.

“We both know we have very different positions on software patents,” said Paul Cormier, Red Hat’s president for products and technologies. “We weren’t expecting each other to compromise.”

Red Hat, despite asserting they don’t believe Microsoft has any patents that read on their products, included a standstill agreement in the deal. Sources tell me it is carefully phrased to comply with the GPL. If Red Hat felt they had to do that with their new partner, there’s no doubt everyone else remains at risk.

If Microsoft truly want to signal the end of hostilities, step one is to sign the Mozilla Open Software Patent License Agreement or join OIN. Until one of those happens, I remain sceptical of Microsoft’s love for Linux.

[Please see my InfoWorld article for more]

OSI, FSF and the end of software patents

Just as we did in the case of CPTN’s threatened acquisition of Novell’s patent portfolio in 2011, the OSI and FSF have once again collaborated to file a briefing — this time in the key software patent case CLS Bank vs Alice Corporation, which is being appealed at the US Supreme Court. From my article in InfoWorld today:

I endorse and welcome this joint position calling for firm clarity on software patents. With 15 years of history behind us, there’s far more that unites the FSF and the OSI than divides us. We’ve each played our part in the software freedom movement that has transformed computing. Now all of us in both communities need to unite to end the chilling threat of software patents to the freedom to innovate collaboratively in community.

Two other notable amicus curiae briefs are one from Red Hat and one from the American Civil Liberties Union – especially interesting as they are not obviously an interested party until you read their argument and see how they make an appeal to free speech. They say:

Because Alice’s patent claims monopolize knowledge, thought, and speech, they are invalid as a matter of patent law, which can and must be construed to avoid the constitutional problems that would otherwise arise if the patents were upheld

While I expect the court to remain as cautious as ever, this is an important opportunity for them to undo the harm that allowing patents on abstract ideas has caused, chilling innovation both by enabling direct assault on innovators and by introducing friction into the open collaboration of communities.

Don’t Stop With The Trolls

Bridge on the River DeeMy article in InfoWorld this week rounded up the news of the White House initiative to deal with patent trolls and repeated some proposals I’ve made before on other reforms we could make to relieve some of the pain of the dysfunction while we wait for root-and-branch reform of the patent system.

The White House initiative is good and encouraging, but it’s a source for some concern. There are actually plenty of giant corporations who have found they can monetise their vast patent portfolios effectively. The careful construction of the White House proposals suggests to me that they don’t intend to take action against the behaviour of those corporations.

Their tactics are a lot like those of patent trolls. They approach innovators, demonstrate the magnitude of their patent portfolios, assert there is sure to be a conflict and then demand payment of tribute (euphemistically described as “cross licensing”, as if their victims have something to offer in fair exchange). This is all done under cover of NDA-imposed secrecy from the beginning, and those who dare say they are being shaken down — as TomTom did for example — are punished for their temerity. As a consequence of the NDAs and the out-of court settlements there are no public traces – the perfect shake-down.

This is just as chilling to innovation as the actions of non-practicing entity trolls. In some ways, it’s worse. Its perpetrators also use their patent portfolios to chill fair competition, acting in a way that surely should be considered a form of anti-trust when they take vast swathes of vaguely-described “invention” and attempt to apply it to their competitors to lock them out of markets or tax their profits. Preventing direct copying of actual, concrete inventions would be fair enough. That’s not what we’re talking about here though. We’re talking about attempts to control use of gestures, ideas and even rectangles.

So as we congratulate the White House for taking action against trolls, even going to the extent of creating cute animated graphics to promote their efforts, let’s not give their corporate advisors a free pass.  Patents on pure software are abuse waiting to happen and they need to be eliminated. The worthy White House actions against trolls should not distract us from that goal.

On Joining OIN

I signed up Meshed Insights as an OIN licensee, and was amazed when I told people how few people knew it existed. That was the origin of this week’s InfoWorld column. I realise OIN doesn’t fix everything (how can it when what’s really needed is a return to first principles for the patent system in the meshed internet era?)  But as free a defence that might just work, and which has a huge membership that collectively sends a strong message to the US government that startups need change, it seems obvious to join.

Nokia Attacks

I remain bemused by Nokia’s attack on the prospects of the VP8 video format becoming an open standard. I can’t see what they & their shareholders get as a benefit, but I can see the harm it does to Nokia in the eyes of pretty much anyone who values open source and open standards. Read more in my InfoWorld column today.

Google, VP8 and Codec Standards

The politics around codecs are complex and the incumbents are prone to deceptive feints, like in 2010 when MPEG-LA claimed that H.264 was available “free” for web uses (but content owners probably still paid multiple fees in the production chain).  So it is perhaps understandable that some people misunderstood Google’s agreement with MPEG-LA and interpreted it as a victory for the patent circus and the end of any claim of freedom for VP8.

In fact, my reading of the available facts suggests Google won. The license with MPEG-LA looks mostly face-saving for the patent pool, and the attacks from the incumbent companies suggest they’re falling back on the next line of defence. The whole situation is an object lesson in why software patents simply must not be tolerated. Read more in InfoWorld.

[En Français]

Speak Up For SHIELD

If you’re a US citizen, your support for the bipartisan SHIELD Act could strike a decisive blow to patent trolls by making them pay costs if they lose patent actions and allowing judges to require a bond for costs from them before a case can proceed. Striking at their ability to build a fighting fund could well be the key to making the “business” they conduct unprofitable and dangerous.

While advocates of patent maximalism claim this also disadvantages small businesses legitimately prosecuting patents against larger foes, my take is small software businesses should be avoiding patents anyway. There are a few counter examples from the world of hardware (Dyson is frequently cited) but they are an expensive weapon; expensive to wield and likely to bring more value to the vultures who will pick over the wreckage of your business than to you yourself.

Read all about it over on InfoWorld.

Unitary Patent Over-simplified By IoS

The IoS may have uncritically picked up the messaging the UK’s “Intellectual Property Office” has been spreading, but the likely outcome of the unitary patent is likely to be much less savoury. Rather than helping small business, this new regulation introduces yet another threat against small business owners, especially those basing their business on open source software who have no corporate sugar-daddy to protect them. Read why on ComputerWorldUK.

US Hearing To Test Lemley Patents Proposal

A rare en banc hearing of the US federal circuit court today will re-hear the arguments over a fiercely-fought software patent case, CLS Bank vs Alice Corp (the aggressor here is actually Alice; CLS is named first as they sued pre-emptively). Among the amici briefs is one from the EFF proposing Mark Lemley‘s elegant re-examination of the patent statute as a solution. This involves treating “a computer which…”, the weasley phrase added in front of abstract patent claims to make them patentable, as unacceptable unless it refers to a specific implementation of a computer. In this case, the statute’s rules on functional claiming would then apply, severely restricting the scope of the patent.  I explain in more detail in InfoWorld today.


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