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How Red Hat Dodged a Novell-Like Microsoft Deal Despite Lobbying for Software Patents

The Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar



Summary: Microsoft releases -- via CNET -- information about its secret patent "projects"

WE HAVE BEEN AWARE for a couple of years now that Red Hat too was discussing patents with Microsoft but no deal was ever signed other than the recent virtualisation collaboration. It involves no patents at all. This issue is entirely off the table, so what came to fruition is inherently different.

Microsoft now boasts a sort of PR placement. This was seeded in CNET, which has just broken the news about Microsoft unleashing its story about patent deals and their secret history.

The story has a lot to do with Microsoft's Marshall Phelps, who wrote a book on his patent strategy. He was not fired but instead he took some time aside to write this book, apparently. It's a book on how to burn GNU/Linux, but it's titled "burning the ships" -- a phrase that Matt Asay recited very frequently (he said "boats" though, also in a separate context).

Here is an interesting portion of the new article:

The Novell deal, though, is the most interesting tale and the one to which Phelps and co-author David Kline go into the most detail. It began as "Project Summer"--an effort to get at least one major Linux vendor to sign a pact with Microsoft by the summer of 2004. It began with a well-regarded salesperson, Susan Hauser, being tapped to confidentially meet with customers and see how much support there was for some sort of Microsoft-Linux partnership.

The customers were game, Phelps and Kline write, but unwilling to become a party in the negotiations themselves. As the effort took longer than Microsoft wanted it became "project next summer," the authors quip. The company met with Red Hat, starting in the fall of 2004, as part of "Project Bridge Builder," though talks broke down after a year and a half. Just as those talks were collapsing, in June 2006, Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner got a call from Novell's then-president, Ron Hovsepian. A few days after that, Brad Smith called Hovsepian back and a new effort, "Project Blue," was born.

The sides first met face to face two weeks later at a Hyatt near the Chicago airport. That meeting took place amid a convention of female bodybuilders. Another meeting took place in September, this time at Microsoft's outside counsel's office--in the same conference room where several months earlier Microsoft had hammered out an agreement with Sun Microsystems.

"Given the challenges of coming together with Novell," Smith says in the book, "I thought it made sense to meet in the same conference room... Plus, since the room had been lucky for us once before, I figured that couldn't hurt either."

Talks progressed, but had not reached a conclusion. Smith suggested the two sides set an October 31 deadline for reaching a deal. Novell agreed that the deal would be "done or dead by Halloween." After the last-minute end-run around the GPL, the two sides got the deal done and announced it to the world on November 2, 2006.


Pamela Jones added (in reference to that last sentence): "So it was a deliberate end run around the GPL, with a Microsoft goal of getting paid for each copy of Linux sold -- just like SCO -- but thanks to GPLv3, it was an end run that led straight into a brick wall."

The story about Red Hat agrees with something that we already knew, but Red Hat was given a lot of flak recently because of its attitude or at least its approach towards software patents [1, 2, 3, 4]. Heise offers a very detailed analysis that we recommend reading.

The disclosure that Red Hat have applied for a patent on what might strike some as an obscure corner of the software ecosystem has caused others to re-evaluate how open and collaborative Red Hat actually are. As the AMQP 1.0 standard entered into its final phase, a 2007 Red Hat patent application, the company now refers to as a "defensive" patent, on an obvious extension of AMQP, was automatically disclosed and caused quite stir. What is AMQP, why is it important, what has Red Hat done to cause a ruckus within the AMQP community, and what does it mean to open source in general.


Red Hat could probably do a lot more to help the fight against software patents in Europe because now is a crucial time.

WMGarrison has just told us that he had "been studying Red Hat's position on software patents [...] basically, they seem to be in favour of software patents, against business methods, and mainly for interoperability protection."

The summary of Garrison's long article goes like this:

In this article we revisit the historical 2005 Software Patent Directive, the most heavily lobbied European law ever, and look at Red Hat's public policy statements regarding this law. Our conclusion: Red Hat Instead, they endorsed the propaganda term "Computer Implemented Invention" and they lobbied for amendments that would legislate for, not against, software patents across Europe where the letter of the law still forbade them.


As we respect and very much value the opinion of the FFII, giving the benefit of the doubt to Red Hat would be hard in this case. Can Red Hat make a formal clarification about its stance on software parents? Uncertainty helps not at all and it's beneficial neither to Red Hat nor to Free software; it's beneficial to Microsoft.

“[The EPO] can’t distinguish between hardware and software so the patents get issued anyway."

--Marshall Phelps, Microsoft

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