Mono is not a patent threat for Debian

I read Richard Stallman’s post in which he expresses his concern about a serious danger with reliing on .NET for free software development. I think Richard makes very good points here, and I do agree that there’s a serious danger, but I don’t think Microsoft would ever bring all .NET implementations underground. If you think that, my opinion is you’re underestimating them.

Microsoft is smarter than that. They are a sworn enemy of free software, they’re ruthless, and they know all the anti-competitive tactics in the IT world. There’s no doubt they want to make our community divided and helpless. And when they look at the free software development ecosystem, they see two big groups:

A- Highly profitable vendors like Red Hat or Sun/Oracle.
B- Non-profit communities like Debian or Ubuntu (technically, Canonical is a for-profit venture, but they operate at loss).

There’s also 3rd parties that sell hardware or services and contribute “collateral” improvements to our codebase. I’ll ignore those for the sake of simplicity.

It would be silly to try harm group B with their patents, since it’s composed of grass-root efforts which can’t be unrepairably injured just by bringing a company out of bussiness. Besides, group B actually helps them promote their patent-encumbered standards. Why attack those who are helping you?

Ah, but as for group A, maybe they could use patents to shut it down? Perhaps, but I think they’re even smarter than that. Sun Tzu said: “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” If Mono-based applications become a significant competitive advantage (and it is in their agenda that they do), and their competitors are forbidden from using them, they will put all their effort in pushing for alternatives, even at great expense. I really think they know better.

I recently came across this very interesting article, written in 1999, which details the tactics used by Microsoft to fight IBM. They obviously saw OS/2 as a threat. Back then, Windows 95 was the trading token. They could have caused IBM a great deal of harm shall they refused to license it to them, but it seems the idea of subjugating IBM was more appealing. This is how Garry Norris (IBM) put it:

Microsoft repeatedly said we would suffer in terms of prices, terms, conditions and support programs, as long as we were offering competing products.

[Microsoft] insisted that IBM sell 300,000 copies of Windows 95 in the first five months or face a 20 percent price increase

Nice deal, eh? Make your dependancy on Windows 95 stronger, or else we’ll use your existing dependancy on Windows 95 against you. No surprise IBM abandoned the PC market. Are Red Hat and Sun/Oracle set on the same direction?

Draw your own conclussions. In my point of view, projects like Debian and Ubuntu are completely safe from direct patent threat. Should we care if Red Hat or Sun/Oracle succumb? Perhaps not, after all, what are they doing for us?

40 Responses to “Mono is not a patent threat for Debian”

  1. Banshee May Put Ubuntu, Canonical At Risk! - Muktware Says:

    […] the drug, let them get addicted Microsoft would very much want Mono and C# to penetrate Linux. Once the technologies find deep roots in the open source world, the rhetoric fear uncertainty and […]

  2. 22reine Says:

    Yes, I Giron, you’re right, the “middle ‘off’ the road people never sees the threats, and they jeopardize the rest(of poeple). Keep on trucking and watch the villains!.

  3. I Giron Says:

    From Comes-vs-Microsoft:
    ” We have to take a hard look at our tools and consider how to be a better high end solution. We have to spend a lot of money to make sure the openness of C# is well understood and that it is accepted at a level that allows our innovations to have traction.

    I think that between Paul, Yuval and Eric’s group with leader from Rick Rashid we should be able to go through another iteration on this (like we did with NGWS) and come up with some clear answers.

    The strength of this platform and the innovation around it is the key element in preventing commodization by Linux, our installed base and Network Appliance vendors. ”

    Right from the horse’s mouth. It’s all about preventing Linux from become a commodity, using all previous tricks, at any price.

    Yes, Microsoft knows Linux is an enormous risk, so it has to be stopped. And the best way is to infiltrate as many pro-Microsoft developers into FOSS projects as money can buy. And it seems that even Debian is being infiltrated. Otherwise I cannot understand how some Debian developers have come too low as to make us believe they don’t quite get what the words Free and Freedom means, specially for us Debian users.

    The blindest man is not that who doesn’t see, but that who doesn’t want to see.

  4. Dmitrijs Ledkovs Says:

    Nice post. Very clever and IMHO unbiased one can conclude a lot in own favor using own judgement. It presents the problem inside out in terms of chicken and egg problem. Love it =) Gonna use similar argument in daily life from now on! thx.

  5. martin ducho Says:

    If MS anytime comes to conclusion that group B has potential to capture for example 20% of market (read lower their profit by 20%) they will attack.
    Right now they are only building a presence in FSF world. If MONO steals some developer manpower and by lagging here and there behind .NET implementastion helps them keep LINUX subdued, then it might be OK for them.
    But if LINUX grows to real threat for them, then they will try anything to stop it, including threats with MONO.
    Taking into account MS history records and absence of any clear statement about MONO from their side this is the most probable future scenario. Or did Microsoft in the meantime convert to non-for-profit community club and I didn’t notice?

  6. Ben Asselstine Says:

    To be safe from a patent threat from Microsoft, all they have to do is offer a patent license. They choose not to protect their users in this way, and I think it’s very telling.

  7. JM Says:

    Since nobody can know what Microsoft plans to do with their .Net patents, the wiser is certainly to avoid any patent infringement, don’t you think? Even if Debian users only would be sued, I don’t believe most of them will keep using Debian if they are liable because of Mono use. Probably they wouldn’t be confident with any Debian software piece anymore. So finally this would harm the community.

    To me the actual question to be asked is: why Microsoft have patents on .Net and do not release a Linux/Unix/etc. version of .Net themselves? Even .Net source code is available for read only, what for in your opinion?

    I believe they want to keep the possibility or the threat to sue non Windows platforms whenever the audience for .Net clones will be sufficient. And if companies don’t want to be sued, they’ll have to pay for: GNU/Linux is the next Microsoft business thanks to Mono. The problem is that Microsoft didn’t write any GNU/Linux code line AFAIK…

    • robertmh Says:

      The problem is that Microsoft didn’t write any GNU/Linux code line AFAIK…

      But their partner (Novell) did. Of course, as long as Mono is GPL and Novell is a member of OIN, they can’t threaten you directly (unless you consider their “buy our protection” advertisement campaign as a threat).

      • JM Says:

        “as long as Mono is GPL and Novell is a member of OIN, they can’t threaten you directly”

        I’m not sure to really understand what you mean. GPL or not, Open Source or not, if you infringe patents you are liable, especially if you are RedHat for example (whose RHEL does not include Mono strangely). The code is the implementation of an idea, the idea may be patented and the code may be licensed independently. I believe this is where the Microsoft (smart) trick is. Novell just bought for their users the right to use .Net patents in the Mono code. If you use Mono patented parts outside Suse, you are liable in my opinion.

      • robertmh Says:

        GPL has provisions to limit the negative effect patents have over a program. This is section 7 in GPLv2, or section 11 in version GPLv3.

        Unless Novell is the patent holder for all of Mono (which I don’t know), they have to convey the GPL in order to distribute it, and then the GPL forbids them from asserting patents over someone else for use of Mono.

        But of course, this doesn’t stop Microsoft, because they didn’t convey the GPL. Only GPLv3 (which the Mono project conveniently avoids) is supposed to offer protection in this situation.

  8. embrace.extend.extinguish Says:

    as the human mind is so forgettable, here a little refresh about their EEE tactic:
    “Microsoft’s history of anticompetitive behaviour and consumer harm”
    http://ecis.eu/documents/Finalversion_Consumerchoicepaper.pdf

  9. Markino Says:

    could we build something better then C# or Mono?

  10. Tzafrir Cohen Says:

    Suppose I work for a small company that builds a kiosk product and we have to decide now if we want our product to be based on:

    A. Debian/GNOME
    B. ProprietaryLinux/GNOME
    C. Windows CE

    For the sake of this post I’ll over simplify the technical side and also assume that Debian works great for us, ProprietaryLinux will work reasonably well, and CE is horrible, and that we have no other alternatives. I know this is not the case but the simplicity help clarifying my point.

    My boss now asks me for my recommendation. As a technical guy I would naturally recommend A (Debian). But then over the source of research my boss has learned of this page. What could he have learned from this page?

    1. There’s a potential patent attack on our future product
    2. With Debian there’s probably no simple way to pay the tax to the troll. We’ll have to do the negotioation on our own, if such a time comes.
    3. With PropritaryLinux we’ll probably have it included in the product. Maybe at some extra cost.
    4. With CE it will be an integral part of the product.

    This may cause a slight change of opinion to the boss.

    Patents can have an effect even when not used.

    • robertmh Says:

      Tzafir, I generally agree with your point, but when you speak about “patents” in general, you can’t reason this way. There’s simply no way to assure that a product is 100% free of patent liability, because there are many “crap patents” which apply everywhere.

      What one can do is avoid obvious patent nests. This won’t zero the risk, but it helps reducing it. Also, obvious patent nests tend to be populated by another class of “high quality” patents. Don’t take me wrong, I think all patents are harmful to society, but when there’s real innovation associated to them like in .NET patents (as opposed to a patent on “double-click”), it is much easier for patent owners to:

      – Enforce the patent, causing much less PR backslash than it would if they were enforcing their patent on “double-click”.

      – Argue that software patents “protect innovation” every time the public debate on patentability of software appears (which in Europe and India happens every now and then).

      • Tzafrir Cohen Says:

        Microsoft has actually quite recently threatened to use patents recently (TomTom). So I wouldn’t count on the PR effect.

        I agree with you that there are no known patents in the case of Mono (as opposed to e.g. the case of vfat). But your line of reasoning ignored that issue.

        Oh, and: elsewhere I see:

        > > What I do not understand is why NP237 cannot provide any arguments *for* Mono.

        > How is he supposed to provide arguments when he doesn’t have any? He could, of
        > course, admit being wrong, but in my experience most people aren’t capable of that.

        Can you provide arguments for Python? Technically Mono makes life easier for some developers. Furthermore, its packaging overhead appears to be reasonable.

      • robertmh Says:

        I agree with you that there are no known patents in the case of Mono (as opposed to e.g. the case of vfat). But your line of reasoning ignored that issue.

        Because I don’t consider it relevant. We know Microsoft has patents on .NET. Knowing which ones they have would help working around them, but then it remains to be seen:

        – Who would invest the tremendous effort in finding where they’re infringed and working around the infringement (if at all possible). It’s against Novell’s commercial interests to do this (remember, they sell “protection”), so I don’t expect that they would.

        – Whether something would stop them from just adding new ones in their next version of the standard in Ecma (remember that UFO terms are acceptable by Ecma), or the Mono project from adopting them.

      • robertmh Says:

        Can you provide arguments for Python?

        Actually, I can’t. I suggest you ask someone who’s familiar with Python.

        Anyhow, since Python is a community-developed language, one could expect the number of patents it will infringe to be smaller, their quality being much lower, and their holders being much less agressive and without an agenda against free software.

    • robertmh Says:

      Btw, I would show the SFLC analisys to your boss:

      http://www.softwarefreedom.org/blog/2009/jun/29/language-patents/

      The bottom line is:

      – Avoid obvious traps.
      – Do not live in fear.
      – If you’re threatened, content SFLC. They’re here to help.

    • Np237 Says:

      Thanks for this clear argumentation of why “anti-Mono” zealots are toxic for the community and dangerous for the adoption of free software.

  11. Anonymous Coward Says:

    What I do not understand is why NP237 cannot provide any arguments *for* Mono. We do not know if Microsoft will use patents to threaten open-source software, but judging by it’s previous anti-competitive actions, claims that open source is a “cancer”, and that it has patents on Linux, we should use caution. Instead of the “bla bla bla I’m not listening!” approach, NP237 should make some arguments for Mono.

    Someone who chooses to ignore these issues, and insult users and developers, imho, is very damaging to the Debian project, and should not be a Debian developer.

    • robertmh Says:

      What I do not understand is why NP237 cannot provide any arguments *for* Mono.

      How is he supposed to provide arguments when he doesn’t have any? He could, of course, admit being wrong, but in my experience most people aren’t capable of that.

    • Np237 Says:

      Sorry but I don’t like being labelled either pro-something or anti-something, especially for something like Mono, about which I don’t give a damn. (Remember, I’m a C and Python developer.)

      As such, I feel no moral obligation to give you anything.

  12. Chris Says:

    Hey Robert,

    I wrote a CC article on the dangers of _depending_ on mono, if you’re interested, take a read:
    http://blog.christophersmart.com/articles/mono-an-infectious-disease/

    Cheers,
    Chris

    • robertmh Says:

      Actually, I had read it already. I would suggest you avoid the “infectious disease” rethoric, it just diminishes the credibility of your message, and it’s a pity because ISTR this article had really good points.

      • Chris Smart Says:

        Thanks for the suggestion, I will consider changing it.

        You’re right that Mono itself is not infectious if it’s just used to
        enable users to run .NET applications. It’s good to have free implementations of .NET. But the problem that I see
        is that Microsoft and Novell are pushing it as a development platform
        for free software and if our free software is written in C# then
        that’s dangerous. It’s getting into free operating systems and in this
        way it is infecting our free software.

        So maybe the title is too harsh, but my reason for using the title
        this way is two fold. Firstly, it’s a play on the infectious kissing
        disease as Mono, but secondly if Mono is used to create free software
        and it creeps into our distributions then it is sort of infectious.
        More and more C/C++ applications in Ubuntu for example are being
        replaced with Mono, completely ignoring the risks associated with
        using it.

        Nevertheless, I appreciate your feedback and will consider a name change :-) Thanks!

        -c

  13. oiaohm Says:

    It all depends how desperate MS gets for money. Remember SCO insane case against Linux.

    If MS is forced to the point were burning bridges will give them a chance to stay alive as a company they will.

    Patent risks are not about just now. Patents last 20 years. Can you say in the next 20 years from now MS has no risk of being stress to a point of burning bridges. Sorry there profit reports really do suggest a crunch will come.

  14. Poll: 62% Don’t Trust Microsoft on Mono | Boycott Novell Says:

    […] are other noteworthy remarks and there are skeptics of Mono inside Debian. How is this for an argument? I recently came across this very interesting article, written in […]

  15. Dean Says:

    corporate ubuntu users can buy indemnification from canonical

  16. Alexandre Oliva Says:

    Robert, I get a feeling you’re missing the point. The issue is not whether Debian is at risk, the issue is whether the community is put at greater risk because of Debian’s move.

    When Debian or others in group B adopt, promote and endorse software projects that support this kind of mine-fielded technology, it makes it more likely that members of the community at large, be they in group A, be they in group C, end up finding themselves in a position in which, in order to use some useful Free technology, they pretty much have to bring in the mine-field along with it, because projects became dependent on it.

    Since we’re talking about community at large here, this won’t affect only Debian users. The stronger the support of Debian et al to such technology, the more likely it is that Free Software users will end up threatened or even victims of Microsoft.

    It appears to me that it would be far smarter for us to stop this monster before it grows too much. Making it a bigger problem for others just because you’re safe is the opposite of caring for our community.

    • robertmh Says:

      Robert, I get a feeling you’re missing the point. The issue is not whether Debian is at risk, the issue is whether the community is put at greater risk because of Debian’s move.

      Hi Alexandre,

      That was exactly my point. Did you read the whole post?

      • Alexandre Oliva Says:

        Interesting… I read the whole post, but an important part of your point was apparently buried in the links at the end, that I didn’t follow. Taking the text at face value, without knowledge or assumptions about why you linked to those important Free Software, it appeared to me that your message was the exact opposite. It appeared that you were saying “B are safe, and who cares about A”, which would lead to the conclusion that using Mono is just fine. Having left out C for simplicity, it further obscured your message :-(

  17. reine Says:

    But not to forget: every time you create a “.NET, a GNU/Linux sysadmin misses a job!.

  18. Np237 Says:

    *yawn*

  19. Stefano F. (tacone) Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    But I should also note that Red Hat is not an easy fish to troll. Many smaller fishes may be put in greater danger, if not for money, for competition concerns and entry-barriers raising purposes.

    Mono is of critical importance for Microsoft, as Intel dominance is vanishing and new kinds of platforms enter the market. I just wish they would have cleared up the patent covenant. It would help their own interests.

  20. Michael "I use KDE" Howell Says:

    Whenever I talk about Mono, I’ll refer to this page.

  21. Mark Says:

    And what of this group?

    C) corporate Debian/Ubuntu/RedHat/Sun/Oracle users

    • robertmh Says:

      Hi Mark,

      This fits in the “3rd parties that contribute collateral improvements” category, which I don’t think adds anything in favour or against my argument.

      But if you think it does, be my guest. :-)

      (I admit, it wasn’t well-defined enough; the determining factor is that software development is not their main goal, and their contributions are a collateral result of their own specific needs)

      • Mark Says:

        As a Debian developer, you should care about such people: “Our priorities are our users and free software”. Having your users sued into the ground isn’t a good idea to encourage.

      • robertmh Says:

        Hi Mark,

        I think you didn’t read the complete post, or didn’t read it carefully. I care a lot about such people, and it shows. Furthermore, things are not black & white, and some of them even fit better in group A than in group B.

        Also, I explained why I think “suing into the ground” is a much less likely outcome than being subjugated by patents like IBM was (by Windows 95).

        I’m wondering how many companies are in this situation already. Do you know if any of your users (e.g. Dell) are paying patent royalties to distribute Ubuntu?

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