Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that every user of the open source Linux system could owe his company money for using its intellectual property.
In a question-and-answer session after his keynote speech at the
Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) conference in Seattle,
Ballmer said Microsoft was motivated to sign a deal with SUSE Linux
distributor Novell Inc. earlier this month because Linux "uses our
intellectual property" and Microsoft wanted to "get the appropriate
economic return for our shareholders from our innovation."
Those claims to rights in Linux will set alarm bells ringing in the open
source community. Some had argued that the deal was a sophisticated way of
claiming rights over the software.
The deal involved a payment of $440 million from Microsoft to Novell for
coupons which Microsoft users can redeem against support for SUSE Linux. A
payment that now looks to be more important, though, is a $40 million
payment from Novell to Microsoft, reported to be a pledge that Microsoft
will not sue its users for patent infringement.
Ballmer was explaining the rationale behind that deal. "Novell pays us
some money for the right to tell customers that anybody who uses SUSE
Linux is appropriately covered," he said, according to Computerworld.
"This is important to us, because we believe every Linux customer
basically has an undisclosed balance sheet liability."
The comments will provoke fury amongst open source advocates who believe
that Microsoft has no claims at all on the intellectual property contained
In explaining the deal before Ballmer's comments, Roger Levy,
vice-president of open platform solutions at Novell, told a Paris press
conference that the deal solved a problem which was costing both firms
"Customers were afraid they'd get sued if they crossed platforms and this
meant that they were hesitating on buying decisions," said Levy. "As part
of the deal Microsoft will agree not to sue our customers and we agreed
not to sue their customers. This is not an agreement between companies ?
we can still sue each other for any number of reasons ? but ultimately our
respective customers needed peace of mind to make decisions."
Red Hat, which also distributes commercial versions of Linux, refused to
sign a similar deal with Microsoft. Red Hat "does not believe there is a
need for or basis for the type of relationship defined in the
Microsoft-Novell announcement," deputy general counsel Mark Webbink told
news agency Bloomberg in a statement.