A Lesson In Critical Reading

Posted: Mon, 14 May 2007 | permalink | No comments

Yes, Microsoft have started swinging their patent bat a little harder. However, before everyone gets all screamy about the "235 patents" thing, read a little closer:

the Linux kernel [...] violates 42 Microsoft patents. The Linux graphical user interfaces - essentially, the way design elements like menus and toolbars are set up - run afoul of another 65, he claims. The Open Office suite of programs, which is analogous to Microsoft Office, infringes 45 more. E-mail programs infringe 15, while other assorted FOSS programs allegedly transgress 68.

While I can forgive a journalist the sin of not knowing the difference between Linux-the-kernel and Linux-the-entire-FOSS-ecosystem, can people who should have a clue about this please stop perpetuating the inaccuracy?

Yes, 42 patents is still pretty bad, but it's not 235, and getting facts straight is what we do on this side of the debate -- the frothing and bullshit is what the other guys do.

Once you start looking at the various categories of patent, it really does make it obvious that there's some straw-grasping going on here. If GUI elements really infringe on 65 Microsoft patents, it seems reasonable to assume that KDE and Gnome have a subset each, so presumably nobody gets the full brunt of that lot. Also, those 68 "assorted FOSS programs" patents probably includes such widely-used classics as this pearler of a program (chosen at random from Freshmeat for it's likely small userbase; no other ridicule is intended or implied).

What galls me, though, isn't the bandying around of random inaccurate numbers, it's classy things like this:

[some Microsoft sock-puppet] refuses to identify specific patents or explain how they're being infringed, lest FOSS advocates start filing challenges to them.

Yeah, we'd hate it if the patent system were at all used in the manner in which it were intended. I don't suppose anyone else is getting SCO-style "we've got 100,000 lines of infringing code, but we're not going to tell you which ones" flashback at this point?

Personally, I think that if Microsoft ever does starts with a patent smackdown, it won't be 235 patents, it'll be two or three, the strongest ones they can find, and 90 minutes after the plaintiff(s) is/are served the infringing code will be history, and we'll go back to living our lives as normal. That's even assuming that the patents are legit, which is by no means a given (even with the US' insanely broad patent provisions). As the linked article explains, the US Supreme Court has started getting a bit noisy on the subject of over-broad and pointless software patents, so perhaps Microsoft is just getting it's licks in before the Supremes take it's noisy rattle away from it.

There's some side-commentary on this issue at Groklaw, and the Patent Law blog has a quick mention of it too (with all sorts of nice frothy comments, to boot).

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