EditorsAbout the SiteComes vs. MicrosoftUsing This Web SiteSite ArchivesCredibility IndexOOXMLOpenDocumentPatentsNovellNews DigestSite NewsRSS

07.17.09

Free Software Foundation Discourages Dependence on Mono, Dismisses Microsoft Community Promise

Posted in FSF, GNU/Linux, Microsoft, Mono, Patents at 8:29 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Last week, Microsoft extended the terms of their Community Promise to implementations of the ECMA 334 and 335 standards. You might think this means it’s safe to write your software in C#. However, this promise is full of loopholes, and it’s nowhere near enough to make C# safe.

Why Worry About C#?

Since we published Richard’s article about Mono last week, some people have been asking us why we’re expressing special concern about free software developers relying on C# and Mono, instead of other languages. Sun probably has patents that cover Java. Maybe IBM has patents that cover C compilers. “Shouldn’t we discourage the use of these too?” they ask.

It’s true that all software patents are a threat to developers—but that doesn’t mean that all software patents are equally threatening. Different companies might have patents that could be used to attack other languages, but if we worried about every patent that could be used against us, we wouldn’t get anything done. Microsoft’s patents are much more dangerous: it’s the only major software company that has declared itself the enemy of GNU/Linux and stated its intention to attack our community with patents. If Microsoft designed a patent trap into C#, that is no more than what it said it would do.

The company has been quite clear about its intentions since late 2006. At a user conference in November that year, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, responding to a question about their patent agreement with Novell:

… the fact that [GNU/Linux] uses our patented intellectual property [sic] is a problem for our shareholders. We spend $7 billion a year on R&D, our shareholders expect us to protect or license or get economic benefit from our patented innovations. So how do we somehow get the appropriate economic return for our patented innovation…?

(Seattle Post-Intellegencer, The Microsoft Blog, “Ballmer on Novell, Linux and patents,” November 16, 2006.)

A few days later, an interview with Microsoft President Bob Muglia was published, and he made it clear that they considered C# one of these so-called “patented innovations:”


There is a substantive effort in open source [sic] to bring such an implementation of .Net to market, known as Mono and being driven by Novell, and one of the attributes of the agreement we made with Novell is that the intellectual property [sic] associated with that is available to Novell customers.

(eWeek.com, “Microsofts Muglia Talks Longhorn, Novell and Java”, November 17, 2006.)

They’ve been turning up the heat ever since. In May 2007, Microsoft followed all this up by announcing in a Fortune magazine interview that they believed GNU/Linux infringed 235 Microsoft patents. And recently they made it very clear that these were not idle threats: the company sued TomTom for using the VFAT filesystem implementation in the kernel Linux without buying a license from it.

All of this can’t simply be brushed aside. These are statements and actions made at the highest executive levels of the company. Using patents to divide and conquer the free software community is a fundamental part of their corporate strategy. Because of that, C# represents a unique threat to us. The language was developed inside Microsoft, so it’s likely they have many patents to cover different aspects of its implementation. That would make free software implementations of C#, like Mono, an easy target for attack.

“The Community Promise does nothing to change any of this.”The Community Promise does nothing to change any of this. Microsoft had an opportunity to take action and demonstrate that it meant us no harm with C#. Instead, they took meaningless half-measures that leave them with plenty of opportunities to hurt us.

Incomplete Standards

The ECMA 334 and 335 specifications describe the core C# language, including information about standard libraries that must be available in any compliant implementation. However, there are several libraries that are included with Mono, and commonly used by applications like Tomboy, that are not required by the standard. And just to be clear, we’re not talking about Windows-specific libraries like ASP.NET and Windows Forms. Instead, we’re talking about libraries under the System namespace that provide common functionality programmers expect in modern programming languages: binary object serialization, regular expressions, XPath and XSLT, and more.

Because these libraries are not defined in the ECMA specifications, they are not protected in any way by Microsoft’s Community Promise. If this were the only problem with the promise, it might be safe to use applications that avoid these libraries, and stick to what’s in the standard. But even the code that’s covered by the promise isn’t completely safe.

Figuring Out What’s Necessary

The Community Promise only extends to claims in Microsoft patents that are necessary to implement the covered specifications. Judging just by the size of its patent portfolio, it’s likely that Microsoft holds patents which a complete standard implementation probably infringes even if it’s not strictly necessary—maybe the patent covers a straightforward speed optimization, or some common way of performing some task. The Community Promise doesn’t say anything about these patents, and so Microsoft can still use them to threaten standard implementations.

Moving the Goalposts

“The Community Promise does not give you any rights to exercise the patented claims.”Let’s say you’ve written an implementation of one of the specifications covered by the Community Promise, and you want to determine whether or not you’ll be sued for infringing a certain Microsoft patent. The necessity question already makes it difficult enough to figure this out. But even if you manage it, you should make sure you check again tomorrow, because the Community Promise might not protect you then.

The Community Promise does not give you any rights to exercise the patented claims. It only says that Microsoft will not sue you over claims in patents that it owns or controls. If Microsoft sells one of those patents, there’s nothing stopping the buyer from suing everyone who uses the software.

The Solution: A Comprehensive Patent License

If Microsoft genuinely wants to reassure free software users that it does not intend to sue them for using Mono, it should grant the public an irrevocable patent license for all of its patents that Mono actually exercises. That would neatly avoid all of the existing problems with the Community Promise: it’s broad enough in scope that we don’t have to figure out what’s covered by the specification or strictly necessary to implement it. And it would still be in force even if Microsoft sold the patents.

This isn’t an unreasonable request, either. GPLv3 requires distributors to provide a similar license when they convey modified versions of covered software, and plenty of companies large and small have had no problem doing that. Certainly one with Microsoft’s resources should be able to manage this, too. If they’re unsure how to go about it, they should get in touch with us; we’d be happy to work with them to make sure it’s satisfactory.

Until that happens, free software developers still should not write software that depends on Mono. C# implementations can still be attacked by Microsoft’s patents: the Community Promise is designed to give the company several outs if it wants them. We don’t want to see developers’ hard work lost to the community if we lose the ability to use Mono, and until we eliminate software patents altogether, using another language is the best way to prevent that from happening.


Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 Free Software Foundation, Inc. Privacy Policy.

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

Share this post: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Reddit
  • co.mments
  • DZone
  • email
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn
  • NewsVine
  • Print
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis
  • Facebook

If you liked this post, consider subscribing to the RSS feed or join us now at the IRC channels.

Pages that cross-reference this one

11 Comments

  1. eet said,

    July 17, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Gravatar

    “…this was brought to you via ‘Roy-Broadcasting’; now in fabulous, new one-dimensionality…’

  2. Dylan McCall said,

    July 17, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Gravatar

    I like the FSF’s article, but here’s my issue with it: It is all about patents.

    Microsoft says GNU / Linux infringes on 235 of their patents. They have, thus far, failed to communicate what those patents are. They are trying to coerce us into a standstill by making people afraid of touching GNU / Linux either as a developer or a user. That is immoral.

    Saying “people shouldn’t use Mono because it infringes on patents” is complete garbage, because clearly GNU / Linux infringes on patents in the same way, and also lacks patent protection. Ultimately, Microsoft wants to sue GNU / Linux users. That won’t stop me, or anyone else, from using it.
    This is the case for any software development down the line, too, free or otherwise. The only difference with Mono is it’s a smaller bit of code than the whole of GNU / Linux, so it’s easier to point at it and say “this one product infringes so we should be afraid.” You can’t do that for the entire operating system.

    I guess that’s the thing I don’t understand, and I bet I’m not alone. Roy, or anyone else: I would love to see something convincing. Why should I care so much about patents here, but ignore the issue elsewhere? Aren’t we kind of playing along with Microsoft’s scheme here?

    Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    Patents ought to be just a small portion of this discussion, in my eyes. Mono is about Microsoft controlling FOSS by APIs, not just patents. It’s a strategic issue, not just a legal issue.

    BTW, Groklaw has more overage of this and it adds:

    I think that there’s a major missing element to the list of requirements …, before you can consider using C#, and that is a commitment to ensuring that future standards are based on the same set of promises.

    “At the moment, even if all the conditions above were satisfied and it were safe to use C#, there’s no guarantee that it’s not an evolutionary dead-end for FOSS. Languages exist in a context, and they have to change and evolve to remain useful in a changing landscape. But there’s no commitment that I’ve seen from MS to keeping the future safe for FOSS. “

    nachokb Reply:

    Dylan,
    I disagree with this part of your reply:

    > “people shouldn’t use Mono because
    > it infringes on patents”

    That’s not the problem. If you want to use them, by all means use it. Mono is a fine piece of software and no doubt it’s useful for many people.

    The problem is that there is a seemingly powerful lobby campaign to include it in distributions which are renowned for respecting freedom.

    And one of the main problems with patents is the power it gives to established players to influence negatively a market (in billg’s own words, even). Let’s not forget that the real danger of patents is not the ability to shut down products or competitors (which would be too obvious), but the ability it gains powerful players to sow doubt or veiled threats.

    On the other hand, the exposure of Mono to specific patents is undoubtedly larger, than, say, the Linux kernel. Of course any software is exposed to stupid patents (that’s what they were designed for, after all). But Mono is specificly a reimplementation of technologies dear to the main monopolist/patent troll. It’s about credibility; if MS says that the LK is violating their patents for some memory management hat trick, they’ve got a lot to prove, and that would only be useful if they went ahead and went to a court (which is costly, even to the monopolist, be it money, PR, time); OTOH, just saying “Mono violates .NET patents” implicitly gives credibility and is easier to sell to the media (and, ultimately, affects the prospects of going to court).

    Furthermore, Ubuntu forum’s moderators showing one-sided behaviour by shutting down any mention of Mono which could be remotely interpreted as a negative or even questioning its holyness (while their users vote against Mono) and shouting FUD is troublesome to all of us Ubuntu users.

    Sorry for the length…

    nachokb

    Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    Dylan,

    nachokb addressed some of the most important points, including the perceived (and real, by design) similarity between .NET and Mono. Remember that SCO marketed its lawsuit to the media by showing UNIX-Linux similarities.

  3. aeshna23 said,

    July 17, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Gravatar

    Saying “people shouldn’t use Mono because it infringes on patents” is complete garbage, because clearly GNU / Linux infringes on patents in the same way, and also lacks patent protection.

    This isn’t true. Just because Microsoft says GNU / Linux infringes on 235 of their patents, doesn’t mean that Microsoft is telling the truth or when it is telling the truth that the patents will hold up in court. Furthermore, no one outside of the Microsoft has a clue exactly what Microsoft is talking about. In the case of Mono, we know that Microsoft does have relevant .Net patents, and that these patents are likely to be of much higher quality, since Mono imitates .net. Also, courts tend to uphold patent infringement charges more frequently when the alleged infringer admits to imitating.

    eet Reply:

    What you’re basically saying is that the risk of bein sued over an unknown patent is preferable over the legally binding promise not to be sued over a known patent.

    eet Reply:

    To clarify; I wouldn’t give a damn about patents either way – but Microsoft got YOU so indoctrinated that you’re worrying over patents all the time.

    Now, this should really worry you.

    Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    Don’t forget In Re Bilski and its ramifications, either.

  4. JohnD said,

    July 18, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Gravatar

    I find it interesting that the post does not mention if the CP is legally binding or not.

    Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    Agreed. There are other criticisms raised in Groklaw.

What Else is New


  1. Microsoft is Attacking Android Like Never Before, Qisda the Latest to Sign Patent Extortion Deal

    More blackmail and propaganda against Android, courtesy of the gentler, kinder, 'new' Microsoft



  2. Caution Needed When Microsoft Copywriters Flood the Media With Microsoft Propaganda

    Media actively subverted by Microsoft-sponsored agents of deception, whose goal is to change what people think of Microsoft and its software, even if by lying (they call it 'marketing')



  3. Gartner Staff That Worked for Microsoft and the Latest Nonsense from Gartner or 'Former' Staff

    Gartner waited until 2015 to declare FOSS fit for databases; another example spotted where Gartner staff comes from Microsoft or vice versa



  4. Links 27/4/2015: Debian 9 Named, Linux 4.1 Reaches RC

    Links for the day



  5. Microsoft is Interjecting Itself Into GNU/Linux and Free Software News, Even Events and Foundations

    Microsoft's entryism strategy is proving effective as Microsoft successfully embeds itself inside the idealogical competition, subverting the competition's overall message and diluting the competition's focus on Free software



  6. The Unethical Business of Selling Fear of Free/Libre Software Bugs (Black Duck, Sonatype, and Symantec)

    The spreading of fear of Free/Open Source software (FOSS) is now a growth industry, so proprietary opportunists are eager to capitalise on it, even if by distorting the truth



  7. Patients' Data at Risk as NHS Reinforces Its Microsoft/Accenture Stockholm Syndrome

    The worst privacy violator in the world and the firm behind LSE failures are pocketing as much as £0.35 billion of British taxpayers' money to acquire access to very sensitive data of British people



  8. Links 26/4/2015: Debian 8, OpenMandriva Lx 3 Alpha, Mageia 5 RC

    Links for the day



  9. Links 25/4/2015: Debian LTS Plans, Turing Phone Runs Linux

    Links for the day



  10. Who Kills Yahoo? It's Microsoft, Not Yahoo!

    The media should blame Microsoft, not Marissa Mayer, for what's going on (and has been going on for 7 years) at Yahoo!



  11. EPO Management is Trying Hard to Appease Its Critics While Pushing Forth Unitary Patent Agenda

    The European Patent Office and European Commission promote the agenda of large multinational corporations (at the expense or European citizens) and critics are being kept at bay



  12. Real Patent Reform Will Not Come From Biggest Backers of GNU/Linux, Not Even Google

    A look at the 'new' Google, the company which is hoarding patents (2,566 last year alone) instead of fighting for reform



  13. Microsoft's Troll Intellectual Ventures Loses Software Patents

    Intellectual Ventures is bluffing with software patents, but this time around it doesn't get its way



  14. Links 24/4/2015: Ubuntu and Variants in the News, Red Hat Developer Toolset 3.1

    Links for the day



  15. Links 23/4/2015: Ubuntu 15.04 is Out, Debian 8.0 Out Very Soon

    Links for the day



  16. Links 22/4/2015: Fedora 22 Beta, Atlassian Acquires BlueJimp

    Links for the day



  17. The Dying Debate Over Patent Scope (Including Software Patents) Replaced by 'Trolls' (But Not the Biggest Ones)

    The corporate media and Web sites or people who are funded by large corporations have essentially suppressed any debate about issues in the patent granting process, thereby guarding software patents and preventing criticism of large corporations' power grab



  18. The Patents Gold Rush Continues

    The morbid obsession with monopolising mere ideas still dominates the media, even increasingly in China



  19. 9 Millionth US Patent Tells a Story of Failure and USPTO Misconduct

    The USPTO, much like FISA (notorious court for surveillance/espionage authorisation), has become a rubber-stamping operation rather than a patents examination centre, as new evidence and old evidence serve to show



  20. HBO Helps Shift Debate Over Patents to 'Trolls' (Scale), Not Scope

    More of that awkward shifting of the patent debate towards small actors who are misusing patents, not large conglomerates like Apple and Microsoft which use patents to destroy competitors, crush startups, drive up prices, and so on



  21. Software Patents Are Still Menacing to Free Software: OIN Expands Scope, HEVC Adds to MPEG-LA Burden/Tax, Google and Facebook Give in on Patents

    A look at recent news about software patents and especially Free/libre software, which is inherently incompatible with them



  22. The Latest Developments Around Microsoft's Clever Attack on Android/Linux

    Microsoft's campaign of destruction, extortion, etc. against the most widely used Linux-powered operating system is revisited in light of new reports



  23. The Microsoft 'Community' is Maligning the Free Software Community

    Dishonest generalisations and baseless deductions portray the Free/Open Source software communities as a nasty place that leads to poverty and despair



  24. Googlebombing 'Microsoft Open Source' Even When Microsoft Shuts Down Its 'Open Source' Proxy

    A massive failure by the press to cover the most basic news, which is Microsoft putting an end to a supposedly 'Open Source' effort



  25. Links 22/4/2015: Calculate Linux 14.16, SparkyLinux 4.0 RC KDE

    Links for the day



  26. Links 21/4/2015: Project Photon, Ubuntu Touch Buzz

    Links for the day



  27. Embrace, Extend, Extinguish: How Microsoft Plans to Get Rid of Linux/Android

    Microsoft's sheer abuse against Android is laying bare for everyone to see now that Microsoft has paralysed Google's legal department with potential antitrust action in Europe



  28. Yahoo's Current CEO (Mayer, Formerly of Google) is Trying to End Yahoo! Status as Microsoft Proxy

    There are signs of relinquishing Microsoft's control over Yahoo! after Marissa Mayer worked to end the company's suicidal/abusive relationship with Steve Ballmer's Microsoft



  29. Repeating Microsoft's Lies Without Any Journalistic Assessment

    Poor fact-checking by relatively large media/news sites results in Microsoft's patently false claims being repeated uncritically



  30. Links 19/4/2015: New KaOS (2015.04), Manjaro Linux 0.8.13 Pre1

    Links for the day


CoPilotCo

RSS 64x64RSS Feed: subscribe to the RSS feed for regular updates

Home iconSite Wiki: You can improve this site by helping the extension of the site's content

Home iconSite Home: Background about the site and some key features in the front page

Chat iconIRC Channel: Come and chat with us in real time

CoPilotCo

Recent Posts