Microsoft is making peace with Linux developers by shelving a weapon it used to assault them with: the company’s massive patent portfolio.
On Wednesday, Microsoft effectively pledged 60,000 company patents to Linux’s open source development by joining the Open Invention Network (OIN), an industry trade group. Founded back in 2005, OIN’s mission has been to shield Linux developers from patent lawsuits — a legal tactic Microsoft has used time and time again to extract royalties from industry vendors.
But on Wednesday, Microsoft said the company was adding its own technology portfolio to OIN’s patent defense pool, which currently shields over 2,650 companies. This group includes startups, individual developers, and the biggest tech firms in the world.
“We know Microsoft’s decision to join OIN may be viewed as surprising to some,” wrote the software giant’s deputy general counsel Erich Andersen. “It is no secret that there has been friction in the past between Microsoft and the open source community over the issue of patents.”
Andersen’s mention of “friction” is putting it lightly. For a time, the software giant used its patent portfolio to assert that Google’s Android OS, a Linux-based operating system, actually used Microsoft technologies. As a result, Android vendors were pressured to ink deals, forcing them to pay royalties to Microsoft. In 2001, Microsoft’s previous CEO Steve Ballmer also famously derided Linux as a “cancer” on intellectual property.
Since then, times have changed; the IT space is no longer dominated by Windows, but by a collection of platforms, which include Linux-based systems. This has led Microsoft to soften its stance on the operating system and open source development. In 2016, the company even became a member of the Linux Foundation.
“At Microsoft, we take it as a given that developers do not want a binary choice between Windows vs. Linux, or .NET vs Java — they want cloud platforms to support all technologies,” Andersen wrote in his blog post. “We hope this announcement will be viewed as the next logical step for a company that is listening to customers and developers,” he added.
Microsoft didn’t get into specifics about how the new patent licensing arrangement will work, so it isn’t totally clear if the software giant is ending any ongoing royalty payments from Linux vendors. Back in 2013, Samsung reportedly paid Microsoft $1 billion in patent-licensing over its use of Android.
However, Microsoft told PCMag that the agreement with OIN will mean it’ll provide royalty-free licensing for company patents when it comes to Linux development, which include the Linux kernel and hundreds of other software packages.
“If you’re looking for signs that we are serious about being the world’s largest open source company, look no further,” tweeted Microsoft vice president Nat Friedman. “We did not exclude any patents from our OIN commitment to license our portfolio to the Linux System,” he added. Friedman is slated to become the CEO of GitHub, the software development platform that Microsoft acquired in June.