Microsoft will let anyone use 60,000 of its key software patents as it moves to play more nicely with open source developers

By: Rosalie Chan

  • Microsoft is joining the Open Invention Network (OIN), a patent community that protects Linux and other open source software programs.
  • The company acknowledged this decision may be viewed as a surprise, as Microsoft had a long history of competing with open-source initiatives and making billions from its patents.
  • Microsoft has embraced open source initiatives in more recent years and plans to bring 60,000 patents to OIN.

Microsoft announced today that it’s joining the Open Invention Network (OIN), an open-source patent community — basically, allowing anybody to use some 60,000 software patents that the tech titan holds, without having to pay any kind of licensing fee.

The move comes as a huge boon to the world of open source software, which is written collaboratively, freely available and can be redistributed and modified by anybody. Occasionally, these open source software projects have fallen afoul of megacorps like Microsoft, which use their patents as leverage to sue for violating their intellectual property.

What OIN aims to do is protect Linux and other large open-source software projects from this kind of litigation, as well as help companies manage patent risks. So by joining the OIN, Microsoft is giving a big signal to the world of open source software that it’s willing to play nicely — something that Microsoft acknowledges may be a little surprising, given the history.

“We know Microsoft’s decision to join OIN may be viewed as surprising to some, as it is no secret that there has been friction in the past between Microsoft and the open source community over the issue of patents,” Microsoft Deputy General Counsel Erich Andersen said in a blog post.

For years, Microsoft battled with open-source initiatives — especially Linux. Former chief executive Steve Ballmer had previously called Linux a “cancer” and accused it of destroying intellectual property. And as late as 2014, Microsoft made about $3.4 billion from its Android-related patents.

Still, Microsoft has spent the past few years embracing open source, like with its recent $7.5 billion purchase of GitHub — although this was originally met with skepticism from developers. Microsoft has now become the biggest contributor to open source initiatives on GitHub, with 1,300 employees actively pushing code to 825 top repositories on GitHub in 2017.

Microsoft has also open sourced major projects such as .NET Core, TypeScript, VS Code, and Powershell, maintaining that developing through the open source process will increase innovation and that there’s more to gain by opening up patents, rather than making money off of them. Now, Microsoft plans to bring over 60,000 issued patents to OIN.

“For others who have followed our evolution as a company, we hope this will be viewed as the next logical step for a company that is listening to its customers and is firmly committed to Linux and other open source programs,” Andersen said.

OIN now has more than 2,650 members, including Google, Red Hat and IBM. It cross-licenses Linux System patents between member companies on a royalty-free basis, and patents owned by OIN are licensed royalty-free to any organization that agrees not to use the patents to harm the open source software world.

“Open source development continues to expand into new products and markets to create unrivaled levels of innovation. Through its participation in OIN, Microsoft is explicitly acknowledging the importance of open source software to its future growth,” said Keith Bergelt, CEO of OIN, in a statement.