09 Sep 2009

Microsoft Feeds the Trolls

An announcement by the Open Invention Network has disclosed publicly for the first time another, previously-secret front in our community’s efforts to protect itself against anti-competitive aggression by Microsoft. OIN’s transaction with Allied Security Trust to buy patents, supposedly reading on free software, offered to the troll market by Microsoft prevented what could have been a very unpleasant experience for the whole free software ecosystem.

Selling patents to organizations that have no purpose except to bring litigation—entities which do not themselves make anything or conduct any research, which do not indeed contribute in any tangible or intangible way to the progress of civilization—is not standard commercial practice. What Microsoft is really doing here is sowing disruption, creating fear, uncertainty and doubt at the expense of encouraging the very sort of misbehavior in the patent system that hurts everyone in the industry, including them.

I’ve explained before why Microsoft doesn’t want to sue on its patents, and why it expends so much effort on keeping secret its efforts to bully enterprise users and redistributors of free software into buying a “Linux license,” for some large but unspecified number of patents it claims are infringed by free software. Selling patents to trolls allows Microsoft to escape the judgment of its largest customers. They don’t want to see free software destroyed. They resent Microsoft’s attempts to reduce their freedom of choice. They are also learning that they cannot, in the present economic climate, continue to pay monopoly prices for software less good than the code our community makes and lets everyone share.

Our community—including all developers, distributors and users—owes Keith Bergelt of OIN, and the companies on his board of directors, a round of serious thanks for interrupting this arms trade, and calling attention to a bad business practice. The commercial members of our community have done what only they can do: they’ve provided the resources to prevent one business from systematically exploiting the pathologies of the patent system to harm us all. But mutual defense means everybody has to help. Richard Stallman and I spent years warning that the patent system carelessly applied to software could be exploited to inhibit freedom and institutionalize monopoly. Many business organizations that used to think we were probably wrong are now sure that we are right. They are doing what they can to defend the community. But the responsibility still rests with us all.

The pressure of public opinion on Microsoft, amplified by the attention of the regulators in Europe and the United States, is significant. We need to speak out loudly now, in response to public erdisclosure of Microsoft’s stealthy patent war, and demand a real patent peace treaty. The tactics of threat and intimidation should stop. The sale of ammunition to the trolls must end. If these unfair practices don’t stop, everyone’s interests will suffer.

permalink | organizations/OIN | 2009.09.09-12:16.00