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Scare Tactics and Hypocrisy From Redmond May 28, 2007

Posted by Maddog in Technology Issues.
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coin_of_the_ms_realmthumbnail.pngWith known thieves, vigilante coddlers, and human rights violators emerging as winners in the recent elections, it would seem that hypocrisy has again been affirmed as an established feature of Philippine politics. Unfortunately, that’s not the only arena where such underhandedness occurs. Microsoft’s recent claim in a Fortune magazine article that various open source programs violate 235 of its patents is every bit as hypocritical, and may even work in Microsoft’s favor — but not for long.

Should we believe Microsoft and avoid open source software alternatives because of alleged legal liabilities? Let’s examine the facts surrounding the issue.

Pot Calling the Kettle Black?

Microsoft is perhaps the biggest and most strident advocate of intellectual property rights enforcement. It is a member of the Business Software Alliance, an anti-piracy group that had a hand in the software piracy raids conducted within the past few years. But Microsoft is also arguably one of the world’s biggest violators of intellectual property laws. Not only has the company long been under fire for its monopolistic business practices, it has also been convicted of copyright and patent violations — at least twice!

As far as violations of intellectual property laws go, Microsoft is a convicted felon. In an article in Le Monde Informatique (France), for example, writer Lionel Berthomier reported that Microsoft’s French subsidiary, Microsoft France, was found guilty of software piracy by the Commercial Court of Nanterre on September 27, 2001, and was fined three million francs. Microsoft announced it would appeal the decision, but apparently not much became of that threat and the story was almost forgotten.

Just last February 22, 2007, however, the District Court of San Diego, California, ruled in favor of Alcatel-Lucent, which had sued Microsoft over patent violations involving the MP3 format. As reported in a New York Times article, the court ordered Microsoft to pay up to the tune of US$1.32 billion, the largest patent judgement ever!

As expected, Microsoft said it may appeal the decision. Whatever the outcome of that action, however, the fact remains that Microsoft is not approaching the bench with clean hands. If it tries to be more specific about its allegations, and actually opens up some of its software code to scrutiny, we may be happily surprised as to who is actually using someone else’s intellectual property illegally. Who’s stealing from whom? Wait and see.

Playing On Our Fears

Let it not be said, however, that the demands of integrity will ever stop Microsoft from applying questionable, strong-arm tactics. Linux Online Managing Editor Michael J. Jordan, in his article, “Convicted Monopolist Terrorizes Software Industry”, thinks that Microsoft’s ridiculous claims are part of an effort to play on the fears of users, thereby by slowing down the adoption of open source software. Microsoft, he says, has chosen to play the Fear card, perhaps in the desperate hope that it might yet reap some short-term sales from it.

But, as Jordan also points out, that can only go so far. What else then can Microsoft do when people are no longer afraid?

Well, Microsoft is probably not so stupid as to actually start suing open source software distributors like Red Hat (which distributes a popular version of Linux), or large corporate Linux users like Google. That’s because many other very big companies — like IBM and Oracle, to name two of the biggest — are making quite a bit of money by providing products and services based on the open source software Microsoft claims violates its patents. IBM ships servers and development tools that use Linux. Oracle has its Unbreakable Linux product and develops its software primarily on the Linux operating system. Will these giants sit and do nothing while Microsoft raids their revenue centers? It’s not likely that Microsoft’s lawyers have forgotten that such companies also have large patent portfolios and can mount a massive legal counterattack against Microsoft.

In yet another related development, the US Supreme Court unanimously issued a ruling that would make it easier to reject or invalidate patents that are merely obvious combinations of other inventions. This could make it even harder for Microsoft to prove its already doubtful patent claims against open source software.

Be Not Afraid

So what are users, both invdiidual and corporate, to make of this comedy from Redmond? As historians will tell you, an army on the verge of defeat will often make one final, desperate, last-ditch effort, just as the Germans did at the Battle of the Bulge in 1945. Is this latest disservice to all computer users Microsoft’s last unmourned gasp in its losing battle against the free and ever-growing open source movement? Maybe not, but it certainly is one of its ugliest attempts to restrict the freedoms of computer users.

We should see all this for what it is. This attack is an indication that Microsoft has already lost the high ground. Unable to counter the advance of open source software with better products or even real innovation, Microsoft is resorting to the lowest, most underhanded means to scare users away from its competition.

Our reaction to this brutish belch from Bill and company should be the opposite of what they want: We should turn away from Microsoft’s overpriced, buggy, and insecure products and embrace open free, source alternatives.

There’s no reason free people should be made to pay for something when free, high-quality alternatives are readily available. The experiences of many others have shown that you can switch to open source software with confidence. And you won’t be forced or frightened into using them either.

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