Today I wrote a story about how a group of open-source proponents called the Open Invention Network bought a bunch of patents related to Linux that Microsoft — and Silicon Graphics before them — used to own. OIN bought them from another group called Allied Security Trust, which acquired them through an auction Microsoft had, because OIN itself was not invited to take part in that auction.
In an interview I had with him today, OIN’s CEO Keith Bergelt claimed that OIN bought the patents to stave off patent litigation from patent trolls — companies that buy up patents solely for the sake of suing companies that may or may not infringe on them. He said this kind of litigation sends the wrong message and gives people the wrong idea about Linux and open source.
“It represents a potential source of antagonism and source of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) for the community,” he told me.
Bergelt also acknowledged that Microsoft’s own actions to discredit Linux by claiming it owns more than 235 patents included in the open-source OS — as well as its ongoing strategy to get small open-source companies to sign deals to protect themselves from patent litigation — also spreads FUD about Linux and open source.
Still, Bergelt would not say the patents were purchased to discourage or prevent Microsoft from waging this insidious patent war, which disappointed me.
Why is everyone afraid to call Microsoft out on this? Even when Microsoft sued GPS device maker TomTom over patents included in the Linux implementation TomTom uses in its devices (a deal that TomTom settled by — you guessed it — paying Microsoft to license the patents), the Linux and open-source community seemed to swallow Microsoft’s explanation it was a cut-and-dried patent-infringement case, not one against Linux itself.
The open-source community can’t have it both ways — if it wants to defend itself against patent-infringement threats to Linux by collecting any patents that could be grounds for a legal dispute, it can’t shiver in its boots every time Microsoft does something that is a blatant attack on its business model.
While I appreciate that groups like OIN want to protect the interests of the community by keeping Linux patents in the hands of that community rather than in the hands of patent trolls, it does no one any good to ignore the biggest troll in the room. It’s time for the open-source community to trade its kid gloves for boxing gloves when it comes to handling Microsoft’s patent-infringement threats against it.