Microsoft to open source community: Let’s talk (maybe)

msftlogos.jpgThis afternoon, Microsoft’s general counsel Brad Smith acknowledged that actions speak louder than words. But words are worthwhile too, he said.

A whole lot of words (not the promise of action, much less action itself) is what a skeptical crowd got at Smith’s speech, one of the keynotes at the InfoWorld Open Source Business Conference. Repeating a tune that Microsoft’s played a lot recently, Smith said his company wants to work with the open source community to find mutually beneficial solutions to intellectual property issues. But for the most part, he stuck to feel-good generalities, and when it came to specific complaints, Smith just repeated, “It’s a complicated issue.”

I don’t want to beat up on Smith — given the company and the setting, it would have been pretty surprising if he’d been more specific. But the audience didn’t seem too impressed with his comments, particularly when he was asked to reconcile his “let’s be friends” rhetoric with Microsoft’s allegations that the open source Linux operating system violates more than 200 of the company’s patents.

James Bottomley, SteelEye Technology‘s chief technology officer and one of the panelists who grilled Smith after his speech, wondered: At the very least, can’t Microsoft publish the list of allegedly infringing patents? That way SteelEye — which offers data protection in Windows and Linux — can either remove the patented software from its technology, or it can challenge Microsoft’s patents in court.

No dice, Smith said — it would be bad business practice. Well, Bottomley wondered, what about sitting down and talking about it with the Linux Foundation?

“I think we would be prepared to sit down with any entity that has the ability to take a license,” Smith said, sounding a lot like he was saying “no”.

Smith’s talk wasn’t all about Linux. He began by focusing on Microsoft’s pledge in February that it will be more supportive of interoperability, which he described as “one of the most important things we’ve done.”

Basically, Smith said the announcement means companies in the software development stage and those releasing noncommercial software don’t have to worry about Microsoft’s patents. On the other hand, if you’re releasing software commercially, you and Microsoft will have to talk — although Smith promised: “We’ll make [the license] cheap.”

Back in February, we were skeptical about Microsoft’s pledge, which sounds a lot like promises the company has made in the past. That doesn’t mean the goal is bad — we just want to see some follow-up.

Smith also outlined what he said were Microsoft’s four big principles when it comes to intellectual property issues and open source software: First, a “well-functioning patent system” is a good thing. Second, there needs to be a bridge between different development, distribution and business models. Third, patents are best sorted out by “industry leaders [read: Microsoft and other big companies], so developers and customers don’t have to deal with these issues themselves.” And finally, everybody needs to make some compromises.

“We at Microsoft respect and appreciate the important role that open source software plays in our industry,” Smith said. “That’s not what you’ve always heard from us, and I recognize that.”

[Note: I wasn’t able to stay for the audience participation part of the talk, so I’ll link to any coverage I find. If you were at Smith’s talk and have your own observations, please share them in the comments.]