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11/15/2007
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Microsoft's Bill Hilf Reveals Its Open Source Strategy

The man in charge of Microsoft's strategy for living in harmony with Linux lays out the company's opportunities with open source and the open source business model.

InformationWeek: I'm curious as to where do these patent claims come from? Microsoft has said there's X numbers of patents that Linux may infringe. Where does that intellectual property come from? Is it based on ownership of Xenix back in the day, is it based on things that are currently in Windows?

Hilf: We published a patent map, which shows, literally, we listed out every number and we listed out every category it fits in and we published that so everyone can see it, because everybody kept asking us, well, what are the patents? (Note: a Microsoft spokesman later clarified Hilf was referring to a categorized tally of possibly infringed patents published earlier this year in a Fortune article, not a detailed list of every specific patent, which Microsoft declined to provide to InformationWeek.)

Classically, our preferred plan is to license our technology in a very proactive and productive way versus litigate. So what we try to do is say in a very, very nice way, there's a model here that allows us to be essentially paid some degree for our inventions in a way that says at least for all the money we invest, the $7 billion every year in research, there's a way to see some return on that if someone's using our technology.

Right now what we've been trying to establish with one to another from Novell to Linspire to Xandros, Turbolinux, a way to license technology so that's both cost effective and makes sense for us so we're protecting inventions that we have and move forward. It allows us to move forward and take that issue off the plate, versus have a rat hole of litigation nightmares and lawsuits.

InformationWeek: There are companies or organizations you've reached out to and they say no, we wouldn't like to do anything. If you talk about infringement there, but if you don't do anything, isn't that weakening your claim to hold valid patents?

Hilf: Would or could we ever litigate, yeah, sure, it's always an option. But it's the last option in the decision tree for us. Would we have to enforce it? Possibly yes.

The key to that is to separate, people's, individuals' and groups' belief about software patents as an issue and then what is the current way that we do patent law in at least the United States. You may disagree with it, but there's a law for how we deal with patents. They often get wrapped up together as the same issue, but they're not the same.

As a company, we're hyperactively involved with patent reform and trying to find models that work best for the industry. But it is key, as you have these conversations, particularly with the open source community, keep in the back of your mind, what is the current model for doing business, right, wrong or indifferent, and then what is the opinion about software patents as an issue.

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