Saturday, November 7, 2015

Hypocritical Red Hat hopes to leverage patents to cement its Linux market leadership: Microsoft deal

This commentary on the Microsoft-Red Hat partnership is a back-to-the-roots post for me. This blog started as a Free and Open Source Software Patents blog--hence the FOSS Patents name-- and only because of all the (ultimately not too meritorious, let alone impactful) patent attacks on Android, it effectively became a smartphone patent wars blog (but by then it was too late to rename it without losing traffic).

While I don't mean to endorse everything Dr. Roy Schestowitz has written about Microsoft on his TechRights blog (and certainly not everything he's ever written about me), I agree with him that media reports on the Microsoft-Red Hat deal could have dug deeper, especially into the patent aspects of that deal. I furthermore agree that Red Hat is apparently happy about making it easier for Microsoft to impose a patent tax on Linux and that Red Hat has simply sold out FOSS values. According to TechRights, Red Hat executives tried to dissuade Dr. Schestowitz from his vocal criticism of the deal, but failed.

I've been saying for years that Red Hat is utterly hypocritical when it comes to patents. It has a history of feeding patent trolls and fooling the open source community. There is, to put it mildly, no assurance that all of its related dealings actually comply with the GPL.

Sometimes I like the positions Red Hat takes in its amicus curiae briefs on patent issues, but more than once I got the impression that those filings were written primarily in an effort to create the appearance of defending the FOSS cause in this context. It was just window dressing.

The fact of the matter is that Red Hat seeks to be a major beneficiary of the software patents mess.

Red Hat is large enough by now that it can just make the trolls go away by paying them off, giving them funds and legitimacy to go after other companies, including other open source companies.

Red Hat has also accumulated a certain amount of patents over the years, which puts it into a better position than individual open source developers and smaller companies in this space to retaliate in the event of a strategic attack by a competitor.

Red Hat now wants to tell Linux users that the way to be protected with respect to patents is to use Red Hat Linux. "Reduce your exposure, buy from us." That is a way of seeking to benefit from software patents.

All of this is no surprise when considering that Red Hat has always just been about taking advantage of something. In terms of its product and licensing policies, Apple may be the very opposite of a "free software" company (no matter what it may do with respect to its Swift programming language). But you have to grant them one thing: they're not fooling anybody about their philosophy. They never even tried. They don't "openwash" anything. They don't pretend to be a charity. They want to make money, more than any company before them. But one could not create products more independently and single-handedly than Apple. And all by themselves they have brought about a revolution that the likes of Nokia and Microsoft would never have created.

By contrast, Red Hat's business model is parasitic (though some like to euphemistically describe it as symbiotic). While Red Hat has been a major contributor to Linux, Red Hat became what it is not because of what it did but because of what Linus Torvalds and others had done. And Red Hat is not nearly as honest as Apple. "Not nearly" may even be an understatement.

The question of whether covenants not to sue over patents (which appears to be the structure of the Microsoft-Red Hat deal and would be consistent with a Microsoft Android patent agreement that was filed publicly last year) violate the GPL v2 has not been addressed by a court of law yet. I would actually like to see someone sue Red Hat for breach of the GPL and obtain clarification, but even the Free Software Foundation and its satellite organizations are not as principled as they pretend to be. They never compromise their values per se, but they have their strategic priorities when it comes to where and how forcefully to defend them. It will be interesting to see their reaction to the Microsoft-Red Hat announcement--not in terms of what they say but in terms of what, if anything, they will do. I guess they won't do anything. Why? Red Hat is a donor, Red Hat is a code contributor, the deal offers benefits for "GNU/Linux" as they call it...

I want to give Simon Phipps (with whom I've often disagreed) credit for distinguishing between the positive and not so positive ramifications of this partnership from an open source point of view. The Open Source Initiative is an organization on whose board Simon Phipps serves with, among others, a Red Hat lawyer.

Without the Red Hat connection, Simon Phipps would presumably have criticized Red Hat clearly as opposed to just making it sound like Microsoft should do more. He says Microsoft should relinquish its patent rights because that's how he defines "love" for Linux. However, he doesn't talk about what Red Hat could have done. Red Hat could have challenged any Microsoft patents that allegedly infringe Linux: in court (declaratory judgment actions) and through reexamination requests. That course of action would have done free and open source software a greater service than a deal.

I, too, have a (past) Red Hat connection, but it's none that I would be proud of. Over the decades I've done work for a variety of companies, and Red Hat is the only one I wish I had never worked with. They supported my NoSoftwarePatents campaign in late 2004 and early 2005, probably because they just thought a sponsorship was useful for currying favor with the FOSS community. They were far larger than MySQL AB but contributed a far smaller amount. In terms of commitment relative to company size, MySQL AB was like 100 times more committed to the cause. But the worst part was that shortly before the European Parliament's decisive vote on a software patentability bill, Red Hat tried to keep the legislative proposal alive. The Red Hat lawyer who did so later responded to that, and he never denied the simple truth that he wanted the legislative process to continue.

On this blog I announced, years ago, working relationships with Microsoft and Oracle. Both are a thing of the past. But I would never say that I wasn't proud of them.

The Microsoft I worked with as a consultant was not the Microsoft under Bill Gates that made artificial scarcity of software a strategic objective and got into serious antitrust troubles. I found Microsoft to be no better or worse than the vast majority of companies in this industry. I overestimated the merit of their allegation that Android infringed on many of their patents, but I corrected that assessment more than a year ago based on the results of numerous Android-related patent lawsuits and, after a second-class settlement between Microsoft and Google/Motorola, declared Google the strategic winner. The number one priority of my work for Microsoft was about giving FRAND meaning, a cause I continue to promote (see today's post on Apple v. Ericsson). In that regard, Microsoft was the victim of abusive tactics by Motorola. Sure, that was just Motorola's retaliation for Microsoft's patent assertions against Android, but two wrongs don't make a right (as Microsoft accurately said in the FRAND context).

Oracle has been a longstanding advocate of reasonableness with respect to standard-essential patents, and of open (and ideally free-of-charge) standards. I'm happy to have helped them in that regard, too. As for their Google copyright lawsuit, everyone can see on this blog that I've always taken the same pro-interface-copyright positions. I took them before (going back to a conference in the European Parliament in 2004) and after working against Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems, and before and after doing work for Oracle. I view Google's position on API copyrights as a wholesale attack on the copyright protection of all computer software. Google doesn't call for the abolition of software copyright, but there appears to be no limit to the collateral damage it's willing to inflict to software copyright only to avoid paying Oracle for using Java in Android.

I am now in the most independent position to comment on IP, antitrust and industry policy issues ever. I'll continue to be consistent, just like I'll continue to draw the necessary conclusions from new intelligence (as I did when all those anti-Android patent assertions turned out to have no merit in most cases and negligible merit in the remaining cases). That's why I can just say what I think about the Microsoft-Red Hat deal. I think it's great for Azure, and I like Azure, though my app development company is using it only to a small extent and will use a different cloud service provider for most purposes. The free and open source software community should, however, be opposed to this and shouldn't trust Red Hat with respect to patents. They weren't trustworthy with respect to the European legislative process on software patents; they weren't trustworthy with respect to various settlements with patent trolls; and they aren't trustworthy now in connection with what appears to be a covenant not to sue, which is a license by any other name, with Microsoft, when the alternative would have been to bring a declaratory judgment action that says "Linux does not infringe a single valid Microsoft patent claim and we're now going to prove it."

It's one thing to be a Linux parasite. It's another to be a Trojan horse. And the worst option is to be both at the same time.

If you'd like to be updated on the smartphone patent disputes and other intellectual property matters I cover, please subscribe to my RSS feed (in the right-hand column) and/or follow me on Twitter @FOSSpatents and Google+.

Share with other professionals via LinkedIn: