RealTime IT News

Ballmer: Red Hat Has 'Obligation' to Pay Up

Microsoft may have toned down its rhetoric about claims that Linux violates its patents, but you wouldn't know it by listening to company CEO Steve Ballmer.

During a question-and-answer session in London last week for the Oct. 4 U.K. rollout of Microsoft's Startup Accelerator Program, Ballmer took a swipe at Red Hat.

"People who use Red Hat [Linux], at least with respect to our intellectual property, in a sense have an obligation to eventually compensate us," Ballmer said during the session, which was Webcast. He cited last year's licensing deal with Novell, as well as Microsoft's recent settlement with patent contender Eolas, as examples of how companies compensate others for the use of intellectual property.

Take the patent deal between Microsoft and Novell, which says Novell's Linux customers are guaranteed they won't be sued by the software giant over potential intellectual property challenges.

In the second example, Microsoft just last month agreed to pay Eolas Technologies an undisclosed sum to settle a long-running patent infringement suit involving plug-in and applet technology Microsoft used with its Internet Explorer browser.

"There are plenty of other people who may also have intellectual property, and every time an Eolas comes to Microsoft and says, 'pay us,' I suspect they also would like to eventually go to the open source world," Ballmer told the U.K. audience.

Although Ballmer made no mention of any intent to sue Red Hat or other Linux vendors, such as IBM, the implications hung around his words.

"When people come to us and say, 'Hey, this commercial piece of software violates our patent, our intellectual property,' we'll either get a court judgment or we'll pay a big check," he said. "I think it is important that the open source products also have an obligation to participate in the same way in the intellectual property regime."

Last spring, Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith outraged open source supporters by alleging that Linux violates 235 of the company's patents.

The brouhaha from that incident appeared to be ebbing about the time Ballmer took the stage in London last week.

A Red Hat spokesperson declined comment on Ballmer's remarks, and instead repeated the company's prior statement in response to Smith's patent allegations.

"The reality is that the community development approach of free and open source code represents a healthy development paradigm, which, when viewed from the perspective of pending lawsuits related to intellectual property, is at least as safe as proprietary software. We are also aware of no patent lawsuit against Linux. Ever. Anywhere."

In the same statement, which the company made available on its blog, Red Hat officials also pointed to the company's Open Source Assurance program, "an intellectual property warranty, a promise by Red Hat to replace its software if there is an intellectual property issue."

However, other Linux defenders were less restrained in regard to Ballmer's latest salvo.

"He has just clearly outlined how Microsoft intends to extinguish Linux as we know it," said a posting on Groklaw.net, a Web site focused on Linux, open source and intellectual property. "Microsoft knows full well that in any intellectual property regime based on software patents, particularly when used as weapons against innovation to protect and reward the old, no one can compete with Microsoft."

Since Microsoft first announced its deal with Novell last November, the company has also signed up smaller Linux vendors Xandros and Linspire.