Trend Micro Shows how Not to Handle the Free Software Community: Page 2

Posted February 17, 2008

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 2 of 2)

Similarly, in summarizing, Chen said, "I think people are drawing too many conclusions about the potential significance of this case," while Bostick added, "This is not about open source, and this is simply a bit of misdirection."

Instead of explaining why the concerns were groundless, Bostick could only suggest that "the facts should mitigate people's concerns." According to her, what mattered was that the case was against a specific company and only involved a patent issued in the United States.

To be fair, Trend Micro's legal team was obviously feeling the strain of trying to comment on a case in litigation without saying too much that might prejudice the case. All the same, the overall impression was that, like many new to free software, those I talked to knew better than the community.

Apparently, it never occurred to them that this condescension would do nothing to mitigate concerns -- nor that their language was less than endearing to the highly intelligent people they were addressing. While explanations might have helped to pacify the community, the derisive dismissals could only make community members conclude that their concerns were justified. Trend Micro would have done better to stay silent.

No wonder the community deluged Barracuda with well-wishes and prior art, and organized a boycott. The one surprise was that Trend Micro's executives weren't burned in effigy.

Other mistakes: No reassurances, and staying the course?

How should Trend Micro have responded, then? Far be it from me to offer assistance, but, since I doubt that the company will listen to me anyway, I can suggest some answers.

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To start with, as part of addressing the concerns seriously, Trend Micro might have provided some assurance to the community that it wouldn't be picked off one by one. Other companies such as IBM and Sun Microsystems have made such an offer, while Novell has promised only to use its patent portfolio defensively. Just how useful such announcements might be is debatable, but at least they would show goodwill.

To be cynical, at the very least, such a declaration might divide the community's almost unanimous response. Yet, asked if Trend Micro would consider such a promise, all that Chen would answer is, "I don't think that we're prepared to make a statement on that."

Such responses suggest that little chance exists that Trend Micro will treat the community seriously in the future. A company that wished to protect its bottom line might realize that, given the number of community members employed as system administrators and IT manager, the boycott might seriously affect profits for several years, regardless of whether it wins its court case or not.

An enlightened company, instead of squeezing out extra profits for a single quarter, might decide that the gracious thing would be to renounce the patent before it's taken away by either the evidence in the case or a patent re-examination. At least then, it might retrieve some good will while accepting the inevitable.

Yet, based on Trend Micro's initial statements and subsequent silence, it is unlikely to do any of these things. Narrowly focused on enforcing its legal rights, Trend Micro appears unaware of the strength of the free software community and the communities surrounding it. And, whether financially or legally, it seems likely to pay the price for this tunnel vision.

The case against Barracuda could even become the test case that the about-to-be launched End Software Patents campaign uses to achieve its end -- a possibility that would prolong the problems for Trend Micro indefinitely.

The one good thing that may come out of this case is that the strength and influence of the free software community will be revealed. Just as the fact that violators of the GNU General Public License prefer to settle out of court strengthens the regard with which the license is held, so the strong responses to Trend Micro may make other companies think twice before acting against the community's interests.

You could almost pity Trend Micro for becoming the example, except that it brought these problems upon itself.

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