Asian governments using Linux will be sued for IP violations, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said today in Singapore. He did not specify that Microsoft would be the company doing the suing, but it's difficult to read the claim as anything other than a declaration of IP war.
According to a Reuters report (which we fervently hope will produce one of Ballmer's fascinating 'I was misquoted' rebuttals*), Ballmer told Microsoft's Asian Government Leaders Forum that Linux violates more than 228 patents. Come on Steve, don't hold back - what you mean 'more than 228' - 229? 230? Don't pull your punches to soften the blow to the community. "Some day," he continued, "for all countries that are entering the WTO [World Trade Organization], somebody will come and look for money owing to the rights for that intellectual property."
This reference is possibly more interesting than the infringement number scare itself, because it suggests that Microsoft sees the wider implementation of corporation-friendly IP law that is part of the entry ticket to the WTO as being a weapon that can be used against software rivals. More commonly, getting WTO members to 'go legit' is viewed as having a payoff in terms of stamping out counterfeit CDs, DVDs and designer gear, but clearly Microsoft's lawyers are busily plotting ways to embrace and extend this to handy new fields. It could be used to throttle emergent OSS companies, and it could conceivably be used to take the new generation of US (and maybe EU too) anti digital piracy and IP laws global.
The venue for Ballmer's menacing claims was nicely judged. Microsoft's Government Leaders Conferences are pitched as select events where chosen senior representatives and influencers from target governments are wined, dined, schmoozed and impressed by the cream of the Microsoft high command (We've explained them before.) They'll be intended to take away the message from this dynamic, hospitable and successful company that OSS is dangerous and will make you poor.
But if countries who want to join the WTO and get developed and rich should consider the dangers inherent in OSS, what about all of those countries who're already members of the WTO? They should perhaps also get the message about how Microsoft sees IP law being used in the future. Which might well have a helpful collateral damage effect in Europe, if Europe's leaders are paying attention. Yesterday the Polish Government backed out of support for the EU patents directive, in a move which threatens to derail it (because the directive may not now achieve a qualified majority in the council of ministers).
This on its own may be no more than a temporary setback for the patents lobby (prominent members in Europe include Microsoft and Sun), but the sound of Microsoft threatening all-out IP war really ought to strengthen the opposition's hand, and make the European Parliament, which opposes software patents, more determined to fight. So well done, Steve, we look forward to the rebuttal. Reuters report here.
* You can set your watch by him. A couple of hours later, we have this. Note that the denial simply amounts to Microsoft denying that Steve said that Microsoft believes Linux violates 228 patents. Steve, allegedly, was merely citing an OSRM report saying Linux might be vulnerable over 283 patents. The 'you will be sued' threat, as far as we can make out, stands. How 283 could have got to be 228 we do not grasp - Fear, Uncertainty, Dodgy arithmetic? The Register