IF YOU CAN'T BEAT 'EM, tax 'em. That seems to be Microsoft's thinking in regard to the "free and open-source software" movement. The Windows powerhouse had complained for years about open-source programs cribbing its intellectual property, but this month it put a number on its discontent: It claimed in Fortune magazine that 235 of its patents were infringed by the Linux operating system and associated programs.
Microsoft executives say they're not itching to file lawsuits; rather, they're just trying to make money from their patents. To that end, they want distributors and users of open-source programs to license the relevant Microsoft technologies, as Novell did last year. Like a number of other firms, Novell sells "subscriptions" that combine Linux and other free programs with technical support. In exchange for Microsoft's promise not to sue its customers for patent infringement, Novell agreed to give Microsoft a percentage of the money it made on those subscriptions.
Critics of Microsoft's pronouncement accuse it of trying to sow doubt in the market. The patent warnings out of Redmond seem designed to make open-source programs -- which have won significant shares of the market for certain Internet-related and corporate computer network software -- appear riskier and potentially more costly than Microsoft's products.