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Free Software changing Microsoft's patent strategy


In October Microsoft took a big step concerning its software patents by joining the LOT Network (LOT stands for "License on Transfer") and the Open Invention Network (OIN). This is a clear sign of progress on the long road to handing control of technology to the people, and the FSFE encourages Microsoft to take additional steps in this direction.

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) works towards a world where software does what software users want it to do, and believes that everybody should be able to participate in the development and distribution of software, if they are interested to do so. Since its foundation, the FSFE has raised awareness about the dangers of software patents, which among other things add legal and financial risks to commercial Free Software software development. In short, software patents are harming users, developers, and society at large.

Since the 2000s, Microsoft has used software patents to slow down Free Software adoption in businesses and public administration by claiming patent infringement of important Free Software components and taking billions of dollars from Free Software re-distributors, including companies selling phones with Android systems.

However, in recent years Microsoft has published non-core software under Free Software licenses, purchased Github (a platform used a lot for Free Software development), and communicated more positively about Free Software. Now, Microsoft joins LOT and the OIN, two organisations that work to solve the problems created by software patents.

LOT strives to protect members against so-called "non-practicing entities", which are companies that operate by extracting money from others through patents that they hold, despite not developing products or services of their own based on these patents. Non-practicing entities are not interested in any cross-licensing of patents.

The OIN works to protect a defined set of Free Software technologies from patent litigation. More than 2.600 members of the OIN have signed a non-aggression agreement that covers a defined list of Free Software packages called the "Linux system definition". In a nutshell, this means that under the "Linux system definition" all members of the OIN have a license for the patents of all the others members. However, any member, including Microsoft, can withdraw from the OIN agreement within 30 days.

It must be emphasized that joining LOT and the OIN does not automatically solve the general problem of software patents, nor some specific patent threats. Indeed, Microsoft has neither dismantled nor freely licensed its entire patent portfolio, and would therefore still be able to sue companies and projects not covered by LOT's and the OIN's agreements.

The FSFE nevertheless welcomes Microsoft's steps, and encourages them to continue in this direction. We join our sister organisation, the Free Software Foundation (FSF), in their statement that Microsoft should:

The FSFE will continue to support companies in their efforts to use and develop more Free Software, and to end the problem of software patents.

"The change of Microsoft's approach shows how crucial persistence and patience are on the long road to software freedom. For decades, thousands of Free Software contributors have explained the advantages of software freedom to individual users and developers, companies, and the public sector. Over time, this created more and more demand for Free Software, a demand which companies wanting to stay relevant in the future cannot ignore. To achieve the next steps, users should continue to demand Free Software, and developers should use their power to demand from potential employees that they show a strong interest to work with Free Software", says Matthias Kirschner, President of the FSFE.