Dutch IT magazine 'Webwereld' (1, 2) asked me to comment on the news that Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu Linux, is offering legal protection against potential patent claims of Microsoft on Linux. Red Hat provides a comparable service and refers to it as a 'necessary evil'
The vast majority of software patents are not legally recognized in Europe, making this one of those typical American problems mostly designed to make lawyers very rich. But leaving that aside, how solid are the claims anyway? 2003 Microsoft invested in the anemic software provider SCO to sue IBM on the basis of alleged ownership of crucial Unix/Linux components. The case lasted many years and achieved nothing. Except of course a lot of confusion in the marketplace amongst IT buyers who were considering moving to Linux, thereby sometimes delaying a firm decision. It would seem that this was the primary original objective.
Microsoft has been working for over a decade to undermine open source in general and Linux in particular - so far with limited success. Linux runs most webservers, all Tomtoms, most super computers and more phones than Windows mobile. Even on the desktop, Microsoft's homebase, it is slowly gaining ground.
For a long time now Microsoft has been saying, about once a year, that 'soon' it will show its many patents that will make Linux unusable. Prof. Eben Moglen, chief council of the Free Software Foundation, explains this phenomenon in this video:
It would be both honourable and helpful if companies like Redhat and Canonical would extend the promise of legal protection not just to the users but also to the individual developers who work on Linux. It is these individuals who need the greatest protection, since they cannot afford to defend themselves legally against a company like Microsoft. As long as they don't, the risk remains that Steve Balmer will continue his yearly 'be very afraid tour', making some developers afraid to work on open source sofware. That is, of course, exactly what Balmer wants.
Meanwhile, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes tells companies like Microsoft: put up or shut up. Wise words from someone who has some experience of dealing with the bullies from Redmond.