Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Microsoft takes on free software

Microsoft, one of the world's leading technology giants is no stranger to business controversy. Microsoft claims that free software like Linux, which runs a big chunk of corporate America, violates 235 of its patents. It wants users and distributors to pay royalties.

Patent licensing is a mega business in the United States. Patent licensing could earn companies hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It seems over half a billion dollars a year is spent on patent applications, and licensing revenues are in the tens of billions of dollars.

No wonder then Microsoft must have assembled hordes of lawyers to engage in patent litigation.

Since the US software patent system is a fervently contested idea, and patents are granted questionably, these lawyers make it their business to engage in court processes that are sometimes ridiculous.

Caught in the middle of this court argument are big corporate Linux users like Wal-Mart, AIG, and Goldman Sachs. Free-worlders say that if Microsoft prevails, the whole quirky ecosystem that produced Linux and other free and open-source software (FOSS) will be undermined.

Microsoft counters that it is a matter of principle. "We live in a world where we honor, and support the honoring of, intellectual property," says Ballmer in an interview. FOSS patrons are going to have to "play by the same rules as the rest of the business," he insists. "What's fair is fair."

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