May 2007 Archives

Open Source and Microsoft

Microsoft Comes out Swinging

Microsoft announced this week that open source software infringes on 235 of its patents. The company is cagey about which patents and what the detailed infringements are. It does say that the Linux kernel infringes 42 patents, and that Linux's user interface (UI) infringes on 65 patents -- some very proprietary button placement no doubt, and very precious look and feel.

If they revealed more of the details, the software in question could be changed, and/or people would refute their charges. Instead, in an atmosphere of heightened awareness about frivolous patents, they're careful to avoid an SCO-like courtroom reckoning. Instead, reminiscent of the RIAA, the company is shrewdly using the media to brandish the specter of lawsuits over the growing open source community.

Microsoft paid Novell a few hundred million dollars for "coupons", which Microsoft can then sell to customers for Linux subscriptions. Novell, arguably eviscerated by Microsoft in the past, heaved itself back into a negotiating position with its SUSE Linux. Microsoft, for its part, has increasing found its expensive, proprietary, patch-needy software challenged by Linux. The deal was no doubt an attempt to stem the growing number of businesses abandoning its platform and opting for Linux.

There's a article on Microsoft's position, with some history on Linux, licensing, the legal claims, and open source in this Fortune article. The deal exploited loopholes in the GPL license which governs Linux distribution. Novell and Microsoft agreed not to sue each other's customers for patent infringement. The marketing collaboration may have been primary for Novell, and Microsoft was most likely also motivated to set a precedent. However, as Fortune noted, the deal naturally received scathing reviews from some small companies and open source purists.

"In free-software circles...the Microsoft-Novell entente was met with apoplectic rage. Novell's most eminent Linux developer quit in protest. Stallman [and his Free Software Foundation], of course, denounced it. Not only did it make a mockery of free-software principles, but it threatened the community's common-defense strategy."

Apparently companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, AIG, and members of the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL), approved the collaboration, which also got Linus Torvalds' blessing.

Ghosts of Big Blue

What's Microsoft up to? Some people have suggested that the Vista rollout wasn't as successful as Microsoft had hoped and that Microsoft is desperate. Microsoft sometimes misses the boat, and when they do they generally try anything they can to get back in the game anyway they can. They were famously late to the Internet party, but they now brag about Word's new html capabilities. They might be able to symbolically improve the 2003 edition of Word simply by adding the word "blog" to the dictionary. The 2003 version suggested that when I typed "blog", what I really meant "bog", or "bloc", or "blot", or "blob" or "blow" (in that order). As in, gee, we're really bogged down with Vista, let's form a bloc against Linux, let's obliterate it. Open source? We don't hear you, we don't hear you -- let's blot it out! Let's turn Linux customers to trembling blobs. Wow, this open source "movement's" tougher than we thought; this really blows.

Microsoft fails to surprise, since it has a track record of using strong-arm tactics, but open-source is not Netscape. Open source has growing support, both from organizations and individuals. Sun's Jonathan Schwartz, in a little Sun manifesto, did suggest pithily the Microsoft needs to wise up and "innovate, not litigate". He notes:

"You would be wise to listen to the customers you're threatening to sue - they can leave you, especially if you give them motivation. Remember, they wouldn't be motivated unless your products were somehow missing the mark."

Open source, he said, "is not a genie any litigator I know can put back in a bottle."

However it will most likely be a protracted battle. According to the Fortune article, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, AIG Technologies, HSBC, Wal-Mart, Dell and Reed Elsevier have bought coupons. These clients are naturally tremendously risk adverse and this may seem like a good option for them and their customers, rather than have Microsoft forever dangling hints of law suits around them. But importantly, these companies also depend on patent protection. They probably recognize open source as a common foe. Indeed some of them, like Reed Elsevier, are fighting their own, similar, open access battles.

UC Academic Senate Smokes RE-89

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UC and Tobacco

Wednesday was perhaps a typical University of California (UC) day. En route to their commencement celebrations, UC Berkeley students passed custodians who were picketing for raises. In support of the protesters, their scheduled speaker, Danny Glover, canceled his talk. On other campuses, a few dozen students started a solid food hunger strike to protest nuclear research, in what U.S. News and World Report suggested might be "a boon for the pudding industry". Meanwhile, the UC Academic Senate defeated RE-89, a measure that proposed barring tobacco industry funding of academic research.

The senate voted 43-4 against RE-89, with 3 abstentions. RE-89 represents the most recent push by UC faculty to ban tobacco industry sponsorship. It follows last year's D.C. District Court decision confirming in 1,742-pages that among other transgressions, five tobacco companies lied about the hazards of tobacco and smoking for 50 years, enticed children to smoke, and used university researchers to help undermine anti-tobacco litigation efforts.

In trying to ban tobacco funding across the UC system, faculty also responded to a recent UC policy limiting individual schools within the university from setting policies to ban tobacco money. That measure, enacted in 2005, overturned the tobacco funding policies set by the individual nursing, medical, public and family health schools on the Berkeley, UCSF, UCLA, and San Diego campuses. Thus, University leadership forbid those schools, with their public health missions and first hand experience with the devastating tobacco related morbidity and mortality, from declining tobacco money. This despite the fact that other universities, such as Ohio State University, Harvard, and John Hopkins, allow individual schools whose academic missions clash with the goals of tobacco companies to bar tobacco funding.

Why Tobacco?

Stanford University is also considering a campus-wide ban on tobacco funding, and professors there also argue divisively over proposed policy. Some contend that professors should be free to pursue whatever research they choose, including tobacco. Others say that if any business ever earned the label "evil", it's the tobacco industry, and that continuing to welcome tobacco's dollars on campuses undermines university goals.

Faculty who disapprove of tobacco funding are often most knowledgeable about the affects of smoking or the industry's deceptive tactics. The UCSF contingent of the Academic Senate voted for the UC ban; the UCSF campus is dedicated solely to medicine and graduate science research. Stanford tobacco industry historian Robert Proctor noted, "We really don't want to be collaborating with an industry that is producing the world's largest preventable cause of death."

University presidents, on the other hand, generally argue for what they call academic freedom. They maintain that academic integrity and conflict of interest guidelines for research cover any touchy issues that might arise in sponsored research. Evidence doesn't always support this claim. A 2003 study by a UCLA professor was one of four examples of academic research tainted by tobacco funding cited by Judge Kessler in last year's DC court decision.

Stanford President John Hennessy said "This is a political message, and I am very concerned that we are changing our academic policy to send a political message." His statement seems to mean that the university doesn't need to send a political message to tobacco companies condemning their toxic products. Since the primary charge of University presidents is to raise money for campus, they don't like to muddy the waters of fund raising goals by implying that their university might be choosy about where it gets its money. That would be the wrong political message to send to tobacco companies.

University administrations across the United States are sensitive to the issue of tobacco funding. Although they often post conflict of interest policies and publicly list their funding sources, when we called universities with questions about their tobacco research funding policies, we received a wide variety of interesting responses from administrators. Some talked very openly about their decision making processes, but others were especially guarded. Coincidentally, those who were guarded were generally the same universities who posted affiliations with the tobacco industry.

It's a tricky balancing act for universities. Although many have divested their tobacco interests, these universities often continue to accept tobacco money for research. Since university communities are increasingly hostile to the tobacco industry and its smoke, these universities seem reluctant to discuss their nuanced policies. Tobacco industry money doesn't generally amount to a large percentage of research money but universities are quietly vigilant about protecting their rights to it.

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Acronym Required wrote more about the UC tobacco policy decision process a few months ago in "My Lab Thanks You For Smoking".

A number of books have been written on the relationships between corporations and universities.

Biotech Patents in Academia

A recent report by Marks & Clerk, "Biotechnology 2007" found that from 2002-2006, academia led corporations in the number of patents filed. Japan, the University of California, and the U.S. government were the top assignees.

Green Spirit

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Last week's New Yorker has a cartoon with a couple of executives looking out over the smoke billowing out factory smokestacks. One guy asks, "Can't we just dye the smoke green?"

Like green beer on St. Patrick's day? There's a festival of green spirit taking over businesses these days. Everyone's doing it one way of another, although some companies manage to sashay further down the spectrum of bizarreness then others.

British Petroleum (BP), at sea perhaps, with Lord Brown outed in a British dither of morality, designed a website to take advantage of this brave new world of green sentiment. At http://www.greencurve.com, BP describes a gas station that pollutes less, bragging: "..Be sure to check out our toilet seats". British Petroleum also designed another website, http://www.alittlebettergasstation.com. This site actually looks remarkably similar to BBC's teletubbies site. The sites share the same kelly green colors, the same twangy children's tunes, and many of those misshapen babies. The gas station site has games for (I think) children, like one called "Gas Mania", as well ringtones, screensavers, and "baby mail" (I have no idea).

Petrol is fun kids!

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