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2/23/2007
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Linux, Innuendo, And Doubt

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer subtly raises the intellectual-property issue again.

Steve Ballmer has repeated his charge--little more than a veiled threat so far--that Microsoft's code can be found in open source software. But he's still not saying where or who's the offender.

Speaking to financial analysts in New York on Feb. 15, Ballmer said Microsoft's nonaggression pact with Novell in November "clearly establishes that open source is not free and open source will have to respect intellectual property rights of others just as any competitor will." Does that imply potential legal action against the Linux community? Asked to clarify, Hora- cio Gutierrez, Microsoft's VP of intellectual property and licensing, says only, "We believe there is overlap between our IP portfolio and several open source components."


Ballmer: Open source "will have to respect" the IP rights of others

Ballmer: Open source "will have to respect" the IP rights of others
In the past, when Ballmer said open source developers have used Microsoft code without its permission, he was fending off crit- ics of the Novell deal or responding to pointed remarks by customers. Raising the issue with financial analysts represents "a whole new ballgame," says Raven Zachery, open source analyst with the 451 Group. But for Microsoft to charge that open source projects have infringed on its code, Zachary says, "it needs to talk about specifics."

Under the Novell deal, only SUSE Linux and the open source code included in its distribution are protected through the companies' agreement not to sue each other over patents. Other open source code, such as Red Hat Linux and Apache Web server, isn't covered; that could cause open source adopters to decide on SUSE as the safer choice.

Some observers have questioned whether Samba, the code that allows a Linux server to work alongside and exchange files with Windows, might contain Micro-soft code. Could Microsoft hurt sales of Red Hat and other nonsanctioned Linux with an attack on Samba?

Samba project leader Jeremy Allison, who left Novell in protest over the Novell-Microsoft deal, insists no reverse engineering of Microsoft file formats or other infringements have occurred in his project. The file exchange is engineered at the network protocol level, he says, based on published Microsoft documents. "We haven't used anybody else's IP to develop Samba," Allison asserts over lunch at his new employer, Google.

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation (the merged Open Source Development Labs and Free Standards Group), calls Ballmer's repeated allusions to intellectual property rights "scare tactics."

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