Friday, February 6, 2009

Microsoft's secret deals on open source

It's a familiar story. Microsoft does a secret deal with a company over patent licences. Almost no details are provided about which patents, how much money has changed hands, or why, except for one vaguely worded press release that talks about how such secret deals benefit the customer through openness and innovation.

This time, the lucky donor of cash for secrets is Brother, which will now be allowed to use Microsoft patents to make printers. As Microsoft doesn't make printers – indeed, doesn't even make printer drivers – it is an interesting exercise to try and guess what's actually happened. It's fruitless to ask either of the companies – and we did try. In cases like this, as in the best gangster movies, nobody ain't sayin' nothin'.

Patents, you might remember, are designed to encourage innovation by the disclosure of information: when a $1.8bn company pays a $230bn company a secret amount for secret rights to a secret list of patents – something else is going on than the open promotion of innovation and "a healthy and vibrant IT ecosystem."

In this case, as so often, it involves Linux. Brother uses Linux in some of its printers. Microsoft claims that Linux infringes its patents. It won't say in public which ones, and it doesn't attempt to press such claims against companies – such as IBM – who would want to fight back and not care about the cost (Ask SCO how that business with AIX went). It doesn't go after people who have little to lose and plenty to gain by fighting back, such as individual high-profile developers or small open-source teams. And it has never gone to court on this matter.

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