Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff minced no words in describing the recent patent-infringement lawsuit leveled against his company by Microsoft, using the pulpit of a May 20 earnings call to compare the legal action to a late-night mugging.
"The reality is that these patent trolls are unfortunately just part of doing business in technology these days," Benioff told analysts and reporters, according to an earnings-call transcript published on Seeking Alpha. Microsoft alleges that Salesforce, which markets cloud-based applications for business intelligence and other areas, violated nine of its patents.
From there, Benioff's language escalated:
"They're basically the alley thugs. Every thriving economy has alley thugs, and we do, too, and that's fine," Benioff said, "Personally, I'm just disappointed to see this from a former leader of our industry, but it's imminently resolvable, and it's not material to our day-to-day business."
Benioff suggested that the lawsuit could have a broad impact on companies developing similar cloud-based platforms: "I think it probably has more ramifications for other cloud vendors than it, honestly, does for us because we're strong. And a lot of other cloud CEOs have been contacting me, and my heart goes out to them and because I feel like that's the real impact is that if you go through it, you can see where this is going. And there's obviously a next step here, and it's not about us, it's about others."
The amount of damages claimed by the lawsuit remains unspecified, although the patents contested by Microsoft cover very specific areas such as "Method and system for mapping between logical data and physical data," "Method and system for stacking tool bars in a computer display," and "System and method for providing and displaying a Web page having an embedded menu."
While Microsoft continues to play out its legacy in desktop-based and hybrid software, the cloud has become an area of increased focus for the company, as more and more businesses gravitate toward receiving applications over the Web as opposed to running them on-premises. Meanwhile, Salesforce has been at the vanguard of pushing cloud-based platforms as the way of the future-placing it on a collision course with Microsoft as the software giant tries to adopt a suitable strategy in that market.
Salesforce's recent push to attract developers also puts it at odds with Microsoft, which has pushed application development using its .NET framework. For its part, however, Microsoft is framing the lawsuit against Salesforce as a straightforward case of patent infringement.
"Microsoft has been a leader and innovator in the software industry for decades and continues to invest billions of dollars each year in bringing great software products and services to market," Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's corporate vice president and deputy general counsel of Intellectual Property and Licensing, wrote in a May 18 statement. "We have a responsibility to our customers, partners and shareholders to safeguard that investment, and therefore cannot stand idly by when others infringe on our IP rights."
But Benioff's comments cast the lawsuit as a more strategic move by Microsoft, a point of view supported by some analysts.
"Microsoft considers these to be the core patents, ideas that differentiate Microsoft's offerings broadly," Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group, wrote in an e-mail to eWEEK. "They won't license these and approached Salesforce and Salesforce evidently [blew] them off, likely thinking that Microsoft wouldn't litigate because they rarely do."
In that spirit, Enderle theorized, Microsoft could be choosing to make an example of Salesforce, if only to flex its litigation muscle: "Microsoft's investment in this effort will be significant. They've been doing this for decades."
The Salesforce lawsuit comes at a time when Microsoft finds itself embroiled in other legal action, including a patent-infringement lawsuit leveled against it by Canadian firm i4i that has already passed through several rulings and appeals. On May 17, Microsoft announced that it would pay $200 million to settle a patent-infringement suit leveled against it by VirnetX, which builds communication and collaboration technologies.