Red Hat Szulik to Microsoft: "We Have Always Been Respectful Of IP"

The Red Hat chairman, however, warned that patents can be wielded by their holders as a legal weapon.
In a keynote opening the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco, Red Hat Chairman Matthew Szulik Tuesday offered an oblique response to Microsoft's assertions that its patents cover code in Linux and other open-source products.

"We have great respect as an industry for IP. We expect that to continue," Szulik told about 400 attendees to the annual event that attracts open-source practitioners, primarily from start-up companies and their venture capital backers. But the view that patent holders are protecting their innovations in operating systems and other forms of software that now make up the infrastructure of many enterprises is probably suspect, he said in so many words. "There's very little empirical evidence that infrastructure patents are associated with innovation," Szulik said.

Szulik made no mention of Microsoft by name, but he later in the talk didn't hesitate to cite Oracle and its Unbreakable Linux campaign.

Nevertheless, he warned that patents can be wielded by their holders as a legal weapon. When young and promising companies are tied up in a patent dispute, "it could be years before you obtain a remedy in court. You could be out of business," he said.

Looking at whether Linux or other code can be construed as violating someone's patent is to focus on the wrong aspect of open-source code, he added. "We should be having a different discussion," he said. The dispute is not between holders of patents and those who fail to respect them. It's between those who get paid after they deliver both software and the support to make it run at a reasonable price versus an older model where an initial license price is followed by annual maintenance fees. Szulik said open-source code, with its adherence to standards, is a threat to vendors who tend to lock-in their customers to a set of software products. The emphasis on standards shifts power to customers, who can choose the best implementer of the standards.

The Open Document Format and other open-source standards also give customers full control over their data. States and governments around the world are supporting ODF as they realize their key data may one day be found in Word documents created with versions that are no longer supported by Microsoft. At that point, he warned, "somebody wants to get remunerated yet again for public information."

"This is not a renegade message. We've always been respectful of invention and IP," he said.

Szulik cited "Unbreakable Linux", Oracle's distribution of Red Hat with the trademark stripped out with its database, along with Oracle technical support.

"I think it's fabulous," said Szulik. "It's a competitive world and you have to compete. The Warriors have to beat the Utah Jazz," he said for the benefit of a Bay area audience that had just watched the local NBA team defeated in the Western Conference semi-finals. Szulik says Red Hat will be able to compete against any Oracle offering and the Microsoft-subsidized versions of Suse Linux offered by Novell.

In an interview at the Red Hat Summit in San Diego on May 9, Szulik studiously avoided any comment on Microsoft's suggestions at the time of patent infringement. He said it was up to Red Hat executives to compete "with our innate skills" rather than respond to those who were challenged or threatened by Red Hat's business.

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