Microsoft Wants to Have Its Cake and Eat It Too

by on June 1, 2007 · 12 comments

Horacio Gutierrez, vice president of intellectual property and licensing at Microsoft, says that interoperability requires licensing agreements like the Novell-Microsoft deal:

“In fact, one makes the other possible, especially at a time like this, when interoperability is so important. Microsoft recognizes the importance of interoperability, which is why we are doing the things we are in our products, why we created the Interoperability Executive Customer Council, and why we are listening to customers,” said Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft’s vice president of intellectual property and licensing.

Customers did not want to have to solve this problem themselves, they wanted industry leaders, their vendors, to solve the interoperability problem for them, he said.

“The only way that’s possible is for companies to really be open to licensing arrangements and building these bridges that people thought were impossible before, among different providers and among different software development models,” he said…

He felt it “unfortunate that while Microsoft is trying to build bridges wherever possible between the commercial and open-source software industries, some seem intent on tearing down those bridges. We are in the bridge building business, not in the bridge burning business.”

This is, as Luis points out, complete and utter nonsense:

Or, you know, you could agree not to assert the IP against your customers, open source, or standards-based projects, and actually benefit your customers like you claim to want to. Wouldn’t that be a wild idea. I think everyone is in favor of bridges, but some of us don’t assume that all bridges have toll booths.

Luis is being a little bit cryptic, so let me unpack this a bit. The free software community is built on strong norms of reciprocity and cooperation. The bargain that drives free software is that you’re free to use free software however you like provided that you respect the equal freedom of other users to do likewise–and not to assert proprietary rights over software that was developed by other users. Morally speaking, using free software while asserting proprietary rights over it is stealing just as much as it’s stealing to use Microsoft software you haven’t paid for.

Now, the fundamental problem that allegedly needs solving is that consumers are afraid Microsoft might sue them for patent infringement. There are two ways that this problem could be solved. One way is the one Microsoft has chosen: use legal uncertainty fear as a way to extort money from “partners” who are unlucky enough not to have significant patent portfolios. This has the disadvantage of being blatantly contrary to the spirit of GPL v. 2 and the letter of GPL v. 3, and risks turning the firm on the open source end of the bargain into a pariah in the open source community.

The other is the approach that IBM, Red Hat, and a lot of other firms have taken: simply promise not to sue users of open source software. That doesn’t require any legal trickery, it doesn’t piss anyone off, and it solves the supposed “problem” Gutierrez has identified of IP issues getting in the way of interoperability.

Gutierrez has artfully phrased things so as to give the impression that there are complicated legal issues that need to be resolved before Microsoft can work with open source companies. But in reality, there’s only one obstacle to interoperability between Microsoft products and free software: Microsoft wants to use free software, but it doesn’t want to respect the associated quid pro quo of agreeing not to assert proprietary rights over it. Which is fine–patent law entitles patent holders to demand license fees. But it takes a lot of chutzpah for Microsoft to then act surprised or hurt when the free software community wants nothing to do with a company that demands access to its software while flouting its norms.

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