Microsoft Opens Its Patent Pool To Protect Linux & Open Source


I was right. We have a brand new Microsoft. A Microsoft that is committed to Open Source and Linux.

I recall a BoF (Birds of Feather) at an open source event where journalists and PR people came together and my fellow journalists questioned me why do I cover Microsoft when my specialization is in Open Source. My answers were simple: I could see Microsoft becoming a good open source citizen.

Under the leadership of Satya Nadella, I saw a new Microsoft. So while everyone else keeps beating them, whether it was joining the Linux Foundation of acquiring GitHub, I continued to give them the benefit of doubt.

But every discussion around Microsoft doing open source weakens when someone mentions patents. Microsoft needed to earn the respect and trust of the larger open source community.

I wrote a column for CIO, back in 2016 and I said, “If Microsoft really cares about Linux and open source if they really want to be part of the community. they must win the trust of the community. As I’ve said before and will say again, if Microsoft really loves Linux, they must make a public pledge to not go after Linux. They should join the Open Innovation Network (OIN) to send a message to the Linux and open source world that they are in it with us, that they are not going to attack us, to destroy us if we use Linux.”

Today I am proven right in my assessment of Microsoft as becoming a good open source citizen. Microsoft has joined OIN, Open Innovation Network, an organization that ensures patents not to be used as weapons against competitors.

I met Jerry Rosenthal, Chief Executive Officer at Open Invention Network, and back then the idea was very clear. A group of companies who had vested interest in Linux and Open Source, the companies that were prudent enough to see how open source will grow in future, created a pool of patents to 1) defend the member companies against aggressors 2) to ensure that they won’t use their patents against member companies.

By joining OIN, Microsoft brings one of the biggest patent portfolios in the world to the open source communities. “We bring a valuable and deep portfolio of over 60,000 issued patents to OIN for the benefit of Linux and other open source technologies,” said Erich Andersen Corporate Vice President, Deputy General Counsel.

Andersen added that by joining OIN, Microsoft will be able to do more than ever to help protect Linux and other important open source workloads from patent assertions.

“We were thrilled to welcome Microsoft as a platinum member of the Linux Foundation in 2016 and we are absolutely delighted to see their continuing evolution into a full-fledged supporter of the entire Linux ecosystem and open source community,” said Jim Zemlin, Executive Director, the Linux Foundation

Why is Microsoft doing it, now?

There are many factors that I think contributed to this decision. The first things first. Microsoft has been doing open source for a very long time, I tracked it back to 2004. Every company, size of Microsoft, does some open source. But it’s at a very lower level, it’s never part of a corporate or business strategy. Now that’s elevated to the top level.

I think, three things changed at Microsoft that made them even more open source friendly:

  • A new leadership, which recognized the changing market dynamics
  • Increased interaction with Open Source: The rise of Azure lead to direct interaction with many open source technologies including Linux and rise of Kubernetes.
  • Pro Open Source developer base:  There is now a huge developer base at Microsoft that contributes to open source. How do I know? I have met and interviewed most of them. The new leadership, changing market dynamics and a workforce friendly towards open source made it easier for the climate within the company to change.

‘Talk is easy, show me the code,” as Linus Torvalds once said. Microsoft is already one of the largest contributors on GitHub. They have started to show their code by open sourcing some of their core products.

“Microsoft has become one of the largest contributors to open source in the world. Our employees contribute to over 2,000 projects, we provide first-class support for all major Linux distributions on Azure, and we have open-sourced major projects such as .NET Core, TypeScript, VS Code, and Powershell,” said Andersen.

At the same time, Microsoft has been creating a level playing field for Linux by bringing Linux utilities to Windows users (Bash shell) and Microsoft enterprise products to Linux (SQL Server, Visual Basic Code, etc.).

However, despite all this work, Microsoft could see a skepticism. The reason was patented. Though you won’t see aggressive blogs by Brad Smith (Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer) anymore bragging about getting another Linux vendor to sign a patent deal with Microsoft, there was still some fear and uncertainty.

Microsoft has moved in to remove all suspicion. Things of this magnitude don’t happen overnight at companies like Microsoft. Mircosoft has been working on it for at least two years.

“We began this journey over two years ago through programs like Azure IP Advantage, which extended Microsoft’s indemnification pledge to open source software powering Azure services,” said Anderson.

Microsoft also worked closely with a perceived competitor Red Hat and supported the GPL v. 3 “cure” principles to GPL v. 2 code, which gives companies time to remedy any GPL violation.

Last week Microsoft joined the LOT Network, an organization dedicated to addressing patent abuse by companies in the business of assertion.

Microsoft has made it clear that they are in the journey of open source with a long-term plan. Microsoft knows very well that patents can be used as weapons, the company itself has used patents as a weapon at a time. But Microsoft wants to change that. Microsoft is now working with its customers and even Linux partners to mitigate any patent nuclear war.

I have a feeling that this move will trigger dominos effects and other companies who were hesitant in giving up their patents and join OIN, will see a paved path. Microsoft has made it easier for them to finally see the light.

Microsoft has opened a window (no pun intended) for companies to join OIN.