Microsoft recently claimed that open source code (in particular the Linux kernel) violates 235 of Microsoft’s patents. It’s not clear they actually intend to sue anyone for infringement, it may instead be some kind of bizarre publicity ploy. But there’s a great quote from Microsoft’s licensing chief, Horacio Gutierrez:
This is not a case of some accidental, unknowing infringement… There is an overwhelming number of patents being infringed.”
Get the implication? There are so many patents being infringed here, those open source developers couldn’t possibly have done it by accident! It’s just too many!
Which is the opposite of the truth. It’s far more likely that, if there are any infringements, they’re all accidental. Independent reinvention is the norm in software, especially given that the Patent Office frequently grants software patents for techniques which are either obvious or for which there is prior art available. (The Patent Office doesn’t do this intentionally, it’s just that it’s hard for a patent examiner to be skilled enough in all the varieties of programming to know what’s obvious in a given subfield, and also hard to find the right examples of prior art when there’s such an ocean of code out there to wade through.)
Assuming Gutierrez meant his statement sincerely, it reveals a lack of knowledge hard to believe in a high executive at a software company. Can he really be ignorant of the most basic realities of software development? I mean, it’s not like programmers sit around reading patents all day; in fact most programmers go out of their way to avoid looking at patents. Thus, infringements are almost always accidental. At the very least, a tally of 235 (alleged) violations would in no way imply that a single one of those violations were deliberate.
In fact, there may be far fewer violations than that, possibly even zero. For one thing, Microsoft has so far refused to name the specific patents or the infringing code, so the whole charge is FUD for now. For another, even if they do name a specific patent, and it matches (“reads on”, in patent jargon) the program code in question, the patent may still be re-examined in response to a challenge, or invalidated in court.
Anyway, my point isn’t about the degree of danger to free software (though fortunately that appears to be small). It’s about the fact that a Microsoft executive would assert, apparently with a straight face, that some of the infringements must be intentional simply because 235 patents are alleged to be violated. That is laughable.