Torvalds Offers Linux Community Advice On Microsoft's Threats

Does a monopolist go eagerly to court? asks the man responsible for Linux, in the face of patent threats by Microsoft.
Linus Torvalds normally eschews playing the lawyer and giving out legal advice. But when it comes to Microsoft rattling the patent saber, he has a bit of legal analysis to share with Linux users.

"When you're a convicted monopolist in the marketplace, you really should not be suing your competitors over patents. I think most Microsoft lawyers would say, 'You know, let's not do that. That sounds insane.'"

Torvalds made the remark in an interview with Linux Foundation director Jim Zemlin, which has been published in two parts on the foundation's Web site in January and early February. Zemlin noted to Torvalds that Microsoft itself has been the target of several patent suits. In May, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith claimed in a Fortune magazine article that Microsoft 235 patents were infringed by Linux and other open source code.

Torvalds said: "I think Microsoft really sees patents as a marketing thing and I think that for two reasons: ... I don't think Microsoft has ever sued anybody over patents. They have been sued by other people, but I don't think they've ... generally used patents as a weapon. But they're perfectly happy to use anything at all as fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the marketplace. Patents are just one thing where they say, 'Hey, isn't this convenient? We can use this as a PR force.'"

The patent issue first emerged after Microsoft signed an agreement to help distribute Novell SUSE Linux and share technology to make sure Windows and open source code interoperated well together. Asked about Microsoft's stated interoperability goals, Torvalds said: "I think there are people inside Microsoft who really want to improve interoperability, and I also think there are people inside Microsoft who would much rather just try to stab their competition in the back. I think the latter class of people have usually been the ones who won out in the end, so I wouldn't exactly trust them."

Torvalds also commented that he wanted the Linux kernel process to be open to many contributors, and suggested that some kernel maintainers might be too quick to reject code submissions and new ideas.

"I actually enjoy seeing all these other kernel trees happening," he said. "All the vendors have their own. If a vendor has drivers that I don't have, I get really upset with the developers who decided those drivers are not good enough to send to Linux. I'm like, 'Why is my kernel tree worse than a vendor kernel tree?' ... It turns out, people felt those drivers weren't good enough quality-wise to make it into my tree. That drives me wild."

"One of the problems we have," Torvalds continued, "is we have people [kernel maintainers who review contributed code, or ideas for code] who have so high criteria for what is acceptable or not that it scares away people who want to do new code and do new experiments. We mustn't set the bar that high. New code, new drivers, there will be problems and I'd rather take them and then improve them than expect driver authors feel kind of like outsiders. ...

"And then asking them to jump through hoops to make their driver perfect when they're standing there alone and don't have help, I think that's unfair. There are people in the kernel community that feel that things have to be just right before you can accept them. I'm much more of a laissez-faire kind of person. We don't want to accept bad things, but on the other hand, hey, everything starts from less-than-perfect roots," he added.

Torvalds said in another part of the interview that he wanted to encourage more internal competition to write good code.

"I want to be the best in the sense that I want to be the best in Linux. If somebody else comes up and basically says, 'Hey, I can be a better maintainer than Linus,' that would motivate me like no end. That's where I want to show everybody that, 'No, I'm the best maintainer.'"

Zemlin asked: That keeps you motivated?

"That absolutely keeps me motivated," Torvalds answered. "I work weekdays. I work weekends. I work 52 weeks a year. I don't want there to be any question of who's the best maintainer. And at the same time, I actually want to encourage competition. ... Quite often, the best competition is things where you actually work together, but there's certainly a sense of, 'OK, I want to be as good as that guy,' even though you're both working on the same thing."

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