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Microsoft's Patently Absurd 'Sudo Patent'

Microsoft's Patently Absurd 'Sudo Patent'

Microsoft's behavior in Linuxland is getting curiouser and curiouser. It just got a patent on technology that's essentially the sudo command. The only way this patent could make sense is as a defense, Slashdot blogger Mhall119 opined. "The patent filing itself makes multiple references to the existence of su, sudo, and gksu, so it can't possibly be used to attack those implementations."

By Katherine Noyes
11/16/09 4:00 AM PT

There's just never a dull moment here in the world of FOSS, especially when it comes to Microsoft.

One minute, we're busy exclaiming our disbelief at the notion of a Microsoft version of Linux.

The next minute -- on *Friday the 13th*, no less -- we learn that Redmond has acquired Teamprise, and will soon be shipping the company's Linux tools as part of its upcoming Visual Studio 2010 release.

'Commitment to Interoperability'

"The acquisition of the Teamprise technology is an important step in our continued commitment to interoperability," Microsoft exec Somasegar wrote in a blog post.

To which Slashdot blogger Anne Thwacks responded: "The question to anyone considering buying a Unix from MS is, would you buy a used horse from a convicted horse-rapist?"

Think that bit of news was a mind-bender? Well you'd better sit down for this one, then. Also last week, it was revealed that Microsoft has been granted a patent on technology many say is essentially none other than the sudo command.

A Patent on Sudo?!

Patent #7,617,530 is described here; reactions, not surprisingly, are currently scorching the wires at
Groklaw,
Slashdot,
LWN,
Gizmodo,
LXer and
ZDNet, to name just a few.

"Thanks, USPTO, for giving Microsoft, which is already a monopoly, a monopoly on something that's been in use since 1980 and wasn't invented by Microsoft," reads the Groklaw blog post on the topic, which went on to generate nearly 400 comments in just two days.

"It all boils down to this: Someone at the US Patent Office must've been snoozing when they approved this patent application," opined Rosa Golijan at Gizmodo. "Either that or the command worked on a person."

Ha! Now there's an interesting thought.

'FoxNews for Patent and FOSS'

"Every time I start to think Microsoft has any morals, they do something like this!" chimed in ccchips on LWN. "I was thinking of buying a copy of Windows 7, but now I've changed my mind."

Alternatively: "Don't re-publish crap like this without reading the source," frederic charged on Gizmodo. "Groklaw is just [propaganda].

"They are just posting their fake headlines to support their viewpoint and they're as much law consultants or analyst as Perez is a Hilton," frederic added. "It's basically FoxNews for patent and FOSS."

So which is it? Is this a serious threat to FOSS, or just so much FUD? Linux Girl took to the streets of the blogosphere to find out.

A Patent on Pi?

"Another day, another patent," Australian Slashdot blogger Jeremy Visser told LinuxInsider. "The threat of software patents still looms, but this is just another drop in the barrel for a continuing problem."

Microsoft also filed a patent on "automatically detecting and drawing a box around mathematical expressions in documents," Visser pointed out.

Software patents in general "are harmful because as a software programmer, you can be infringing on a patent because the code you wrote just happens to behave in a similar way to that which is specified in the patent, even if you are not stealing any code," he asserted.

"Imagine what would happen if somebody patented the algorithm for generating pi (π)," Visser suggested. "Anybody that wanted to convert between a radius and circumference could be prosecuted.

"Software patents are not much different," he said.

'Patently Absurd'

"This is just more patently absurd stuff about software patents," blogger Robert Pogson agreed. "You cannot re-invent the wheel in software and call it an invention to be patented.

"I sure hope the SCOTUS boots software patents out of the park," Pogson told LinuxInsider. "We have copyright to protect software. We do not need double jeopardy."

Software patents are "insane," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed.

"To quote an old saying, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, so software patents are like trying to lock those giants behind a paywall so only the rich and powerful can climb upon them," he told LinuxInsider.

"Software is rarely innovation, and instead nearly always evolution -- from BASIC to VB to DotNET, from FAT to NTFS, and yes from old AT&T Unix to modern powerful Linux," hairyfeet explained. "We all learn new ways of doing things not by suddenly having a Eureka! moment, but by seeing what has come before and thinking, 'hey, I could do that and make it (faster/better/more secure/etc)!'"

'A Minefield' of Patents and Trolls

For that reason, all users -- of both open and closed technologies -- "need to be loud and firm in our opposition to software patents," hairyfeet asserted. "Between copyrights and patents, too much of our past is being locked up behind paywalls, and coming up with anything anymore involves going through a minefield filled with submarine patents and patent trolls waiting under every bridge to suck your little startup dry."

That, in turn, "risks us ALL," he said. "And with the USPTO being so quick to hand out patents like candy, the situation is getting nothing but worse."

Indeed, "even setting aside the question of software patents, the approval of something so basic to OS design shows how truly broken the U.S. patent approval office is," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack agreed. "It's a pity the patent office can't be sued for being that negligent."

A Defensive Move?

The only way this patent could make sense is as a defense, Slashdot blogger Mhall119 opined.

"The patent filing itself makes multiple references to the existence of su, sudo, and gksu, so it can't possibly be used to attack those implementations," he told LinuxInsider.

More likely, "Microsoft knew it had to implement a similar system for Windows, but was worried that they would be open to a lawsuit," he added. "If they can get a patent on the idea, it makes it significantly harder for anybody to sue them over its implementation."

Eyes on Bilski

Either way, "the courts are going to have to take a stand one way or the other on Bilski now," Slashdot blogger Josh Ulmer told LinuxInsider.

"This is just a small warning of the complete and utter breakdown of common sense that will prevail if the system continues to tie software patents to the old system of intellectual property instead of a complete overhaul of non-physical object patents," Ulmer added.

It's difficult to see a practical use for this patent "outside of back-door leverage against standing systems," he asserted. "While it could be (and likely is) completely benign, that a patent like this is allowed to exist in the first place clearly illustrates one of the flaws we can hope Bilski fixes."

'Sudo Microsoft, Please Go Away!'

In the meantime, has anything really changed as a result of Microsoft's sudo chop?

"I would say nothing new here, move along, but it's Microsoft we're talking about and that they could even possibly pull this off as somehow 'theirs' boggles my mind," Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider.

"Microsoft, please, go away!" he concluded. Or -- even better -- "sudo Microsoft, please, go away!"

'Very Little Has Changed'

Yet the move doesn't signify any shift in Microsoft's competitive strategy, "nor does it introduce any new threat to Linux vendors and users that hasn't already been apparent," Visser asserted. "The threat to free software users is no greater than before, although it is still great."

Fortunately, "Linux coders have the audacity to write stuff anyway," Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean added. "FOSS users have the will to USE the stuff anyway, and Microsoft can sit on their ill-gotten patent portfolio and crow about it all they want.

"In the real world, very little has changed," he told LinuxInsider.

In some ways, of course, that's the problem, Linux Girl would suggest. Things *need* to change -- not at the hands of Microsoft, but through a meaningful reform of the patent system.

Short of that, innovation will continue to be stifled, and antics like this one will become the norm.


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