Microsoft called – it wants its patents back

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Will Head writes…

Free software? Brilliant thought all big corporations. We can get all those lovely programs, without having to pay a penny for them and we even get the source code to mull over and tweak here and there.

Except it all looks like it might come crashing down with the news that Microsoft has put a figure on the number of patents it owns that free software like Linux violates – and it comes to 235, which is pretty big by any standard. If Microsoft wants to enforce its intellectual property, then it could end up costing those that have used it up to now a fair amount of money in licensing fees.

It all comes down to a difference of opinion – on the one hand you have Microsoft that makes the bulk of its income from selling software licenses and on the other you have the open source devotees that think software should be free to be shared, improved and copied. There’s not much middle ground between the two.

Of course having a patent isn’t everything – it’s enforcing it that matters. Then it comes down to how good your lawyer is when you have your day in court.

There is another hope for the free software side – the Open Invention Network, set up by IBM, Novell, Philips, Red Hat and Sony among others. The OIN owns its own patents, although it doesn’t charge licensing fees to use them. In return, however, anyone using the patents has to agree not to assert their own patents against Linux. Cunning, eh?

It could just be chest puffing on the part of Microsoft – whether it actual tries to enforce its patents remains to be seen. Whichever way it pans out, though, it’s certainly going to be an interesting fight to watch.

Will Head