In a surprise move, Microsoft has announced its membership of the Open Innovation Network - and has specifically stated it is doing so to protect Linux, along with other open source software, from patent risk.

Microsoft's relationship with Linux hasn't exactly been the best: Former chief executive Steve Ballmer famously referred to Linux as 'a cancer', largely as a result of the kernel and the operating systems based around it taking over the lion's share of the lucrative embedded, server, and supercomputer markets. Attempts by Microsoft to heal the rift following Ballmer's departure have often been derided as attempts to 'embrace, extend, and extinguish', but of late the company appears to be having a little more success in convincing the world it has changed its ways: Microsoft has added Linux to Windows 10 via the Windows Subsystem for Linux, which left beta in July last year, joined the Linux Foundation in November 2016, and has even ported some of its server applications to the platform.

Now, the company is really putting its money where its mouth is by joining the Open Invention Network (OIN), a group which manages a system of patent cross-licensing designed to reduce the risk of open-source projects being shut down by patent infringement claims - with some of said claims having, in the past, come from Microsoft itself.

'We know Microsoft’s decision to join OIN may be viewed as surprising to some; it is no secret that there has been friction in the past between Microsoft and the open source community over the issue of patents,' admits Erich Andersen, deputy general counsel for Microsoft, in the announcement. 'For others who have followed our evolution, we hope this announcement will be viewed as the next logical step for a company that is listening to customers and developers and is firmly committed to Linux and other open source programs.

'Joining OIN reflects Microsoft’s patent practice evolving in lock-step with the company's views on Linux and open source more generally. We began this journey over two years ago through programs like Azure IP Advantage, which extended Microsoft’s indemnification pledge to open source software powering Azure services. We doubled down on this new approach when we stood with Red Hat and others to apply GPL v. 3 "cure" principles to GPL v. 2 code, and when we recently joined the LOT Network, an organisation dedicated to addressing patent abuse by companies in the business of assertion.'

Microsoft's membership of OIN is no paper tiger, either: The company has pledged a huge patent portfolio, currently 60,000 strong with tens of thousands more to be included in the partnership once they have gone through the issuance process. Those patents can now no longer be used as a threat against Linux and other open-source projects, but instead are provided royalty-free to any company, institution, or individual which in turn agrees not to assert its own patents against what the OIN terms the 'Linux System'.

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