USPTO and Microsoft’s patent FUD: an incentives-based solution

As Linux Weekly News reports, Microsoft’s general counsel has intensified the company’s sabre-rattling against Open Source projects, this time putting numbers on the alleged patent infringements in the Linux kernel, desktop projects and Open Office.

Conveniently left out is the one-sidedness of this smear campaign. Microsoft could take all their time to look at open-sourced code, but on the other hand, Microsoft’s code is sacrosanct. One wonders if Microsoft’s “Shared Source” licenses and EULAs allows the licensee to sue Microsoft for patent violation? One would suspect otherwise.

The patent system is broken. And it’s a matter of incentives. As I wrote in response, the US Patent and Trademark Office grants overly-broad patents without checking carefully for prior art. Thus Microsoft’s claim is probably true in a very twisted way: nobody can write anything meaningful without violating some patent that one of the big tech companies (IBM, Sun, Microsoft, etc.) holds. Any company with a legal team worth their salt would play the system and file for as many patents as they can, no matter how dubious. Some even boast about it (Steve Jobs, about Apple’s iPhone). The culprit is thus the patent system, not the owners of the dubious patents (who are ethically responsible to their shareholders only. Corporate law is also very flawed, but that’s the subject of another post), and certainly not the authors of the infringing software.

Regardless of whether software patents is a good idea or not (I personally think it’s not), the USPTO and Congress have a serious conflict-of-interest problem here. Granting more patents earn them more money, and examining patent applications carefully cost them money. Plus, they don’t lose anything for patents that are overturned. The Justice department should charge USPTO for the time wasted by patent challenges, if the patent ends up overturned because of USPTO’s fault. That way they’d have an incentive to be more careful.

Microsoft-Yahoo rumours resurface

From New York Post, via Monsters and Critics:

According to the New York Post, Microsoft is asking Yahoo to re-enter formal talks in order to finalize a merger of the two companies. This move was attempted in the past just shortly after Google emerged, but in the end went nowhere. After the huge loss last month to Google over the DoubleClick purchase, Microsoft is intensifying their plans to acquire Yahoo.

This is disturbing. Yahoo has traditionally been quite open-source friendly (Yahoo! Toolbar is available for Firefox, their AJAX library is open-sourced, and they even produced a Linux client of Yahoo Messenger, long time ago — it still works, though not updated), or at any rate, more platform-agnostic.

Of the three companies, Yahoo Messenger supports OS X on par with Windows, with Linux being an afterthought, while Microsoft’s Messenger client is a joke on a Mac, and GTalk .. is currently Windows-only (Google employs a key Pidgin developer, so now that the dispute with AOL over their old name, Gaim, has been settled, hopefully audio chat support will be coming to the free Unices (and OS X) soon.

What will a Microsoft buy-out entail? First of all, presumably the downgrading of Mac support (look at Virtual PC, or IE for Mac). Microsoft would cancel a product that’s making them money (VPC), and forbid the use of home editions of Vista under virtualization, to sabotage Mac interoperability, while at the same time offer (read: promise) a free version of their Flash competitor Silverlight for the platform (not authoring tools, naturally. Everyone knows digital artists <prefers> working in Windows). Imagine the fate of Yahoo Messenger, what with Apple aggressively pushing iChat into the corporate market. Microsoft will probably calculate that they are better served undermining OS X’s viability as a business platform, at the expense of a miniscule loss of marketshare.

So we in the FLOSS world are in this unconfortable situation of hitching our wagons to Google as the lesser of the two evils (despite privacy concerns). I’m personally using GTalk (through Pidgin) at least until Jabber becomes the established IM protocol standard, but if anyone has a suggestion for a good non-big-3 search engine, I’m definitely considering putting my eggs in more baskets.