Microsoft has succeeded in fracturing the Linux and open-source community with the patent indemnity agreements it has entered into with several prominent vendors, Ubuntu leader and Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth told eWEEK.
The strategy behind that was to drive a wedge into the open-source community and unsettle the marketplace, Shuttleworth said. He also took issue with the Redmond, Wash., software maker for not disclosing the 235 of its patents it claims are being violated by Linux and other open-source software.
"Thats extortion and we should call it what it is," he said. "To say, as [Microsoft CEO Steve] Ballmer did, that there is undisclosed balance sheet liability, thats just extortion and we should refuse to get drawn into that game. On the other side, if Microsoft is concerned about its intellectual property, there is no one in the free software community that wants to violate anyones IP. Disclose the patents and well fix the code. Alternatively, move on."
Microsoft has said it does disclose which patents are being violated, but only in one-on-one conversations with vendors. To Shuttleworth, that is not disclosure, because patents are public documents.
"I think its obvious at this stage that really what Microsoft is doing is trying to unsettle the marketplace. It isnt working and has not had the slightest impact on those companies that refuse to be drawn into that line of discussion with Microsoft. If anything, there is plenty of evidence to show that the companies who have been drawn into that have paid a significant price," he said.
Shuttleworth also accused Microsoft of using its financial muscle to get vendors to sign patent-related deals with it knowing that such agreements will split the community.
"I think those distributions have allowed themselves to be drawn in to do what are obviously bad deals because of short-term financial pressure. Microsoft is paying for those deals. Make no mistake, what is happening here is that Microsoft is buying those deals and I think that has driven something of a wedge into the open-source community," he said.
A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment on Shuttleworths remarks.
"I dont think this will end well for the companies that slipped up and went down that road," Shuttleworth said. "Ultimately, it is the spirit of open source that really motivates your best developers. Developers have been abandoning Novell ever since they did the deal with Microsoft, and they have gone to Oracle and Google among others. Thats unfortunate for Novell, but was a fairly predictable consequence of their decision and it ultimately portrays a lack of understanding about what it is that really empowers free software."
All software patents did was hinder innovation as they slowed down the process of building on other peoples ideas, he said. Patents were originally designed to accelerate innovation by encouraging disclosure of the core idea in a product rather than keeping it magical and mysterious.
The idea was to encourage people to document how they achieved an effect and the process they followed, and in return they got a bit of a monopoly on that. But, in the case of software, the moment the code shipped, the "magic is disclosed and society really doesnt benefit by giving people a monopoly for something they are going to disclose anyway," he said.
Shuttleworth also suggested that Microsoft may actually soon start lobbying for the abolition of software patents.
"Microsoft is enormously vulnerable to patent suits and pays large amounts to settle them. As much as they would like to use patents as a way of keeping the economics of the 1980s in place, they are living in a new century and they will figure that out and pretty soon will turn around and start lobbying for the abolition of software patents because it is the only way to unlock themselves. They will still be able to compete and they are a good competitor. They do not have to resort to nefarious tactics to do so," he said.
Shuttleworth also threw his support squarely behind the recently released General Public License 3.0, saying that new code written for Ubuntu Linux will be made available under that license.
"I think that GPLv3 is a good license in many cases. Some of the issues that [Linux founder] Linus [Torvalds] and others have raised with the new license are far more an issue at the kernel level than they are anywhere else in the system," he said. "By and large, I think it is a well written license and, most importantly, I think the process they went through to produce it was fantastic. You have certainly never seen a process like that to produce a Windows end-user license or an Adobe user license. So, for all its potential flaws, it is a far, far better license than some of the proprietary alternatives."
GPLv3 was far better written, and much more enforceable, than was GPLv2, and the new license reflects the changes in the industry, the landscape, since GPLv2 was written, he said.
"I dont think every piece of code needs to move to GPLv3, and I dont think it is a problem if the Linux kernel doesnt move there. I think ultimately, though, that there is no point in being reactionary and just dismissing GPLv3 out of hand. What I would really like to see is a sensible debate among the kernel developers around the merits of the new license over the old, which is far from a perfect discussion," Shuttleworth said.
Asked about the fact that Torvalds had publicly spoken out against some of the provisions of GPLv3, Shuttleworth said he [Torvalds] was an open minded and pragmatic man with the best interests of Linux and the community at heart.
"He is the kind of leader who takes strong positions, but is also willing to change them, and that is one of the things that makes him a great leader. So I certainly dont think that it is out of the question for the kernel to move to GPLv3 and I dont think it is a disaster if it doesnt," he said.
While Shuttleworth reiterated that he would not enter into any type of patent agreement with Microsoft, he refused to rule out working with the software giant in the future, saying he did not believe in a policy of sanctions or disengagement.
Companies—more than people—can change, and all businesses have had to deal with bad ideas creeping in for a while, London-based Canonical included, he said.
"So you have to stay engaged. Folks should not be totally horrified if at some future date we do something with Microsoft, but there is nothing currently on the cards as there is nothing they have at this stage that I think could be good for the open-source community and interesting to engage on," Shuttleworth said. "I dont think they have a huge amount to offer at this stage. But a lot of open-source software runs on Windows, so we should not just dismiss them out of hand."
He said he was not "at all interested in licensing Microsofts multimedia file formats, as Red Hat is believed to be trying to do," except in OEM cases or specific device cases where it was a necessity, he said.
"But, someday, perhaps Microsoft will realize the approach that they have taken around media, which they have been banging on since 1997, is not working. Microsoft has not established itself as a media content channel at all. So, perhaps, they will be willing to look at alternative approaches," he said.