Microsoft Pledges Not To Bring Patent Suit For Web Services

The company makes a public pledge that it won't sue individual developers using any of 35 key standards.
It's not everyday Microsoft gets an "atta boy" from the open source community.

It did last week, when it said it "irrevocably promises" not to sue a developer for patent infringement for using any of 35 critical Web service standards, such as Soap and WSDL, to which it has contributed technology. The relief that brought is a sign of how jumpy developers are about being sued--and how truly strange the software patent world has become.

"That's the kind of language we want to see in the open source world," says Brian Behlendorf, one of the developers of the Apache Web server and now CTO at CollabNet, which makes collaborative development software.

Approximate number of patents Microsoft will apply for this year

Here's the strange part: Microsoft isn't claiming to have patents to those 35 standards. Or claiming not to. It's only saying if it did have such a patent, it wouldn't enforce it. "We haven't created a list of covered patents," says Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards. "We do not want to inadvertently exclude, or include, patents from any such list." IBM executives have pledged not to use the company's patent library against open source projects.

Open source developers fret they could pour years of work into a project only to have a major company claim a patent on a key component.

Microsoft doesn't give away all the power of any Web services patents. (It applied for 3,000 patents last year and likely will match that this year.) A developer who participates in a patent action against Microsoft loses the pledge's protection. In that sense, the promise is another manifestation of the patent arms race that encourages large companies to get as many patents as possible--even if only for self-defense.