Send in the lawyers

Linux users have stood up to Microsoft and won - for now

This spring, at a packed bar in east London, Mark Shuttleworth, chief executive and founder of Canonical Software, launched the next generation of his Ubuntu distribution of the Linux operating system. One of the first questions from the audience was: "Aren't you worried that Microsoft is going to sue you for patent infringement?"

The self-styled "first African in space" was quick on the draw. He would, he said, welcome the day Microsoft made good on its threat to sue Linux users for patent infringements. That way, those who work with free and open-source software would know what these alleged patents were, and could start to build around them.

Confused? Well here's the background. Software patents are not technically allowed in Europe, the EU having sensibly (and after a lot of noise from free software advocates, small businesses and Poland) decided that patenting mathematical algorithms was a little warped. But in the US, software patents are big business - for lawyers. For years, Microsoft has been spreading a rumour that the main competitor to its Windows operating system in the server environment, the free and open-source Linux, infringes some of the software patents it holds at its offices in Redmond, Washington. Only, strangely enough, it won't say which ones.

Microsoft's business strategy is the equivalent of "don't buy his products or something bad will happen (but we won't tell you what)". In other words, it shows less sophistication than the average playground ruse. Nevertheless, it was enough for Novell - responsible for the popular SUSE distribution of Linux - to enter last year into a mutual covenant not to sue over patent infringements.

Until then, the received wisdom had it that the major distributors of Linux - Novell, Red Hat - as well as some of its major stakeholders, such as IBM, held enough patents of their own to keep Redmond at bay. The patent wars that could ensue, the thinking went, were too awful to contemplate.

In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, Brad Smith, general counsel to Microsoft, took the brinkmanship a step closer to the edge. He announced how many patents Microsoft thinks Linux infringes. If you're interested, that number is 235. So, should we be 235 times more scared than we were before this announcement was made?

The answer, to several hundred Linux users, is "no". In fact, people are now queuing up to be sued by Microsoft, and are calling Redmond's bluff on a website called, simply, "Sue Me First, Microsoft". At the time of going to press, nearly 500 people had left their contact details for Brad Smith to get in touch, should he feel the need to make good his threats. And less than 24 hours after the tech news site Slashdot drew attention to the petition, Microsoft had issued an official statement confirming it wasn't going to be suing anybody.

At least, not yet.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.