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Bullying – the new corporate mantra

If you’re a small-time business operator and move into a seedy neighbourhood, you probably wouldn’t feel too surprised to see a ruffian walking up to you one day and demanding that you pay his gang some protection money, or “hafta”, as they call it in India. These days, however its not ruffians but chairmen and CEOs whom even the biggest companies find walking up to the door and demanding pretty much the same thing.

Exhibit A – Novell and Microsoft. I don’t particularly think the Novell deal with Microsoft violates the GPL (disclaimer – IANAL). What Novell did do however, is to sign a contract which said, among other things – SUSE Linux users will not get sued by Microsoft over patent violations. Since SUSE Linux is pretty much Linux most of the way. This is pretty much tantamount to saying: “we are afraid that we’ve done something wrong – please don’t hurt us.” Putting aside the fact that this is completely untrue, (even according to Novell, who say they are aware of no known infringement), they have stated this on behalf of a large number of open source and free software developers who have nothing to do with Novell and who certainly will oppose making any such implicit statement. The consequences became pretty clear a few days later when Steve Ballmer of Microsoft gave an interview:

“Novell pays us some money for the right to tell customers that anybody who uses SUSE Linux is appropriately covered,” Ballmer said. This “is important to us, because [otherwise] we believe every Linux customer basically has an undisclosed balance-sheet liability.”

Of course, Microsoft has been saying that for years, except now they’ve got validation from a huge Linux company, which as Ballmer correctly points out, makes all the difference. Microsoft also indicated that they would be happy to accept payment from other Linux vendors in exchange for similar agreements. Surprise, surprise.

Exhibit B – Microsoft and Universal. By now everyone knows that every Zune sale will have a cut destined for Universal music, as a “piracy tax.” Universal believes that all MP3 players are used solely to pirate music, and therefore anyone who uses an MP3 player owes them money. Not that I’d ever want to buy a Zune, but the unequivocal stance that if I do, I’m assumed to be a thief would cure me of any such desire in short order. I didn’t know “Welcome to the social” actually meant “Join the criminal club”.

These companies – Novell on behalf of developers who have contributed to it’s operating system and Microsoft to consumers who buy the Zune – have a responsibility not to be bullied. As consumers though, we can do little but hope and vote with our money and our usage.