The Software Freedom Law Center has recently put out
based on a study of how much each Windows user is paying for
software patents. The methodology used is quite simple: look at the known
payments made by Microsoft in patent cases, then divide that sum by the
number of Windows licenses shipped. The bottom line was $21.50 per
license. That is a significant part of the total cost of a license, and
everybody who has bought a Windows license - even those of us who just
overwrite Windows with a Linux installation - is paying it.
SFLC describes this cost as a tax, and does its best to make the
While $20 might not sound like a lot, it adds up pretty quickly. A
school with only 50 Windows machines - barely enough for one class
of students - is paying $1,000 of its limited budget in patent tax,
rather than buying books or other useful supplies. A government
agency with a mere couple hundred Windows machines is paying many
thousands of taxpayer dollars in patent tax.
As the SFLC points out, the real amount of this "tax" is likely to be
higher than the estimate. The number of Windows licenses is probably
inflated by Microsoft, and there's certain to be patent settlements that
the public knows nothing about.
Software patents thus cost quite a bit of money; trying to quantify this
"tax" and spread the word is a useful thing to do. Perhaps, if more people
understand what the patent system is costing them, there will be more
pressure to make real reforms. The SFLC release wanders into slightly more
dangerous territory, though, when it says:
On the other hand, free operating systems based on Linux have never
been found guilty of patent infringement, making Linux a
patent-tax-free alternative to Windows. Not only do these free
software systems have no patent tax, they have no taxes whatsoever,
because - like all open source software - they are available to the
public at zero cost.
There is a significant difference between saying "Linux has never been
found guilty of patent infringement" and "Linux does not infringe upon any
patents." The SFLC's choice of the former wording was carefully done. The
nature of the software patent beast is such that almost any
significant piece of software must infringe upon a number of patents. The
fact that nobody has, yet, successfully prosecuted a patent case against
Linux is not a cause for great comfort.
Language like the above thus risks playing into the hands of those who
would claim that the free software world is populated by those who would
"steal" the "intellectual property" of others. Might they not say that the
absence of software patent payments by Linux users is not an example of
freedom, but, instead, an act of tax evasion? If Microsoft were to decide
to bring a software patent suit against a developer or user of Linux, it
could use this release to great advantage: what better example could there
be of how the free software community's refusal to pay patent royalties
puts companies like Microsoft at an unfair competitive disadvantage?
Putting the focus on Linux in this discussion seems like the wrong
direction to take. While free software developers make diligent attempts
to avoid known patents, the same must certainly be true of companies like
Microsoft. Our lack of patent infringement judgments is more a matter of
luck, lack of sufficiently deep pockets, and, if some sources are to be
believed, some users quietly paying patent royalties to avoid ending up in
court. We need to get the software patent problem fixed, rather than brag
about our avoidance - so far - of public settlements.
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