Microsoft ignited hostility following its assertion in Fortune magazine on Monday that Linux and other open-source software infringe on 235 of the company’s patents. The software giant, which signed a controversial patent cross-licensing deal with Novell last November, is encouraging other companies to reach licensing agreements to resolve intellectual property claims. It has made companies nervous about whether they could eventually be targeted by lawsuits from Microsoft.
In an exclusive interview, Bill Hilf, general manager of platform strategy and director of Microsoft’s work with open-source projects, spoke with IDG News Service on the effects of the declaration on the open-source community. Before joining Microsoft, Hilf was in charge of IBM’s Linux and open-source technical strategy and spent the last 12 years working with open-source software. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
IDG News Service: The Fortune story has caused a lot of concern over how Microsoft may proceed in regard to its patent claims. Did you know Microsoft officials were going to reveal the number of patents?
Hilf: We did. [But] the Fortune article does not correctly represent our strategy. That’s what has people so inflamed. It looks like our strategy changed and we are moving in a new direction, but it hasn’t. In the Novell deal, we said we had to figure out a way to solve these IP issues and we needed to figure out a way for better interoperability with open-source products. The Fortune article makes it look like we are going out on this litigation path.
Our strategy from everyone in the company — from [Steve] Ballmer to Brad Smith to me and everyone in between — has always been to license and not litigate as it relates to our intellectual property. So we have no plans to litigate. You can never say we’ll never do anything in the future, but that’s not our strategy. That article spins it on the attack. The only new piece information in that article is that it just put a number on the patents.
IDGNS: What was the aftermath after the story ran?
Hilf: The people in the open-source community that I know well … they contacted me right away. All of the European guys I know called me at 2 a.m. I told them what I told you. They said “Okay, that’s what I needed to hear.” The other question I got was, to be very honest, “Do you have a different strategy than the company?” which I didn’t understand at first. I said again, “Don’t look at Fortune magazine as the manifestation of the Microsoft strategy.” It’s the same strategy we’ve had. I think [the effects of the story] will be short term as people realize that it looks like Microsoft is on the attack. I think longer term it will be fine and the work will continue on.
IDGNS: In hindsight, do you think it was a good idea for Microsoft to release the number of patents it believes are being infringed?
Hilf: What we heard back after the Novell deal was “Give us more transparency. You say that there is IP involved, give us an understanding of what that is.” So the attempt was that if we give a number and category of where these things fall, maybe that will help people get an idea of the scope. We are very much calling out to commercial companies to license this stuff and resolve these issues. This isn’t like a trivial invention. There are a couple hundred significant patents here.
IDGNS: Linux supporters have countered that Windows could be using technology that’s in Linux. Given your knowledge of Linux and Windows, what do you think of that assertion?
Hilf: People generalize so much. If you write a patent, it has to be very specific — you can’t have a generalized patent. No one patented the automobile. The idea that maybe IBM invented the operating system thus Microsoft is late in the game is sort of silly. The operating system is a huge category, it’s like “automotive” in many ways. The challenge in all of this is …everyone wants to be a patent attorney or a judge and make the decision if that’s a real invention or not. At the end of the day, the person who decides if it’s an invention of one company or another is a judge.
I personally believe that there’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done in software patent reform. However, the current rules still apply. It’s still the way we do business today and how all other businesses work. So we still have to find ways to work in the current system even though we do want it to be improved in the future.
IDGNS: Microsoft has made a lot of effort to extend an olive branch to the open-source community through programs such as Codeplex, an open-source project sharing portal. But the community is pretty upset by the Fortune story. Is that going to hurt future cooperation?
Hilf: There are three things that we are doing: We’re competing with Linux and Unix servers with Windows servers, we’re going to find ways to interoperate between Linux and Windows because lots of our customers run both and we want to grow the open-source ecosystem as it relates to Microsoft software. There’s no other strategy. There’s no other hidden agenda. I’m trying to be as clear as I can to people that this isn’t a threat. We’re not going out and attacking people. We’re trying to solve an IP issue.