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Is Microsoft going to sue everyone? Who knows?

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

There was a lot of press earlier this week about Microsoft claiming that various free software, including Linux, violates over 200 different patents that Microsoft owns.

"I never envisioned my patents as offensive weapons."

Will they sue? I don't know. Supposedly they're "open to discussions" on licensing terms, whatever that means. In my opinion the best move Microsoft could make is to offer anyone in the open source community a license - for a buck. That way Microsoft would retain its ownership and licensees get to continue to use the technology in question. Crisis averted, and Microsoft actually comes out looking looking somewhat benevolent.

It's unlikely, but I can dream.

$1 for my first patent application

I'm actually the originator of three of Microsoft's early patents. I'll list 'em in the show notes for the curious; but I have no idea if any of them are involved in Microsoft's current claims.

I often tell people that I lost a lot of respect for the patent process once my first patent was awarded. To put it bluntly, it seemed too obvious to me. As a Microsoft employee I assigned ownership and rights to the patent to the company ... for a buck (encased in lucite, so I can never actually use it).

Now, I actually don't fault Microsoft for filing for patents. Given the system as it exists they pretty much have to to remain competitive. Other companies are also amassing large patent portfolios and could just as easily threaten Microsoft for patent infringement. With a large portfolio of its own, Microsoft's response has often simply been a cross-licensing agreement.

And that points out the patent system's biggest flaw in my opinion: it's nearly impossible for large software development houses not to inadvertently infringe. Similar problems result in similar solutions. Given what are apparently exceedingly low standards for patents to be awarded, and a slow process for doing so, everyone is close to infringing on everyone else. Hence Microsoft's "defensive" patent portfolio. When a company comes along and say "Hey, Microsoft, you're infringing on our patent", Microsoft can often turn around and say "Yeah, well, you're infringing on one of ours; how 'bout we just call it even?"

There definitely needs to be some form of protection for intellectual property, but the current patent system is too slow, and too out of touch with the actual state of current software development.

As for Microsoft suddenly asserting its patents on the rest of the community - well, I'll be very disappointed if it's true. I never envisioned my patents as offensive weapons.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11503 in the go to article number box to access the show notes and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse over 1,100 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C3029 - May 19, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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2 Comments
Rod
May 26, 2007 2:37 AM

Do software patents not expire? Drug companies face considerable competition when their patents expire after a relatively short time. Shouldn't software be the same?

Leo A. Notenboom
May 27, 2007 10:46 AM

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Yes, they do. I think my first expires this year or next.

But 17 years (which I believe is the length of a patent) is an EON in computer
terms. Think of what personal computing was 17 years ago. :-)

Leo

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