What Do We Want From Microsoft?

Jason Matusow of Microsoft wants to know:

That said, the real voice of the community is…well…from those of you I don’t know. I have to tell you that the issues with getting this covenant right are incredibly complex and there are real concerns on all sides. Our design goal is to get language in place that allows individual developers to keep developing.

(This is in response to the recent patent deal between Microsoft and Novell, and the poor reception it’s getting from the free software community.)

Unfortunately, he got GrokLaw-ed, and his comment system isn’t taking the heat well. So, here’s my feedback; hopefully, he’s paying attention to views outside his comments.

The big problem, if you ask me, is the distinction between “commercial” and “non-commercial” that Matusow (and everyone else I hear from Microsoft) is making.

In our world, that distinction is a lot less important than the distinction between “proprietary” and “open”. For us, “commercial” is just another way software can be used, and restrictions on commercial use are like restrictions on use by women, or by people in Illinois, or by people who have ever picked their nose in public. Why are businessmen any less deserving of our software as a class than housewives, or Haitians, or other free software developers?

Matusow claims not to be interested in any of this:

We are not interested in providing carte blanche clearance on patents to any commercial activity – that is a separate discussion to be had on a per-instance basis. As you comment, please keep in mind that we are talking about individuals, not .orgs, not .com, not non-profits, not…well, not anyone other than individual non-commercial coders.

Dialogue often means meeting the other person where they’re at, not where you want them to be. They would, presumably, not take us seriously if we insisted on a blanket patent license as a condition for any kind of conversation. Fair enough; but then why should we taken them seriously when they insist on us turning our backs on one of our bedrock principles?

But does the conversation have to be either-or? I’m betting that Matusow’s blog post is evidence that it doesn’t. People at his level are not the types to waste time on wild goose chases.

And is it all that strange to think there might be value in the conversation? There’s a mighty thin line between “proprietary” and “commercial”, so thin even we get them confused sometimes. Does Microsoft really care all that much about for-profit use and improvement of free and open tech? If so, they’re prominent members of a small and shrinking club. If not, then it seems to me that we have a lot of common ground for discussion.