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Azure program defends customer IP against patent trolls

Microsoft defends customers' intellectual property against cloud patent trolls under a new program, as open source takes on greater relevance in Azure.

Microsoft will back Azure customers against patent trolls, the latest example of the software company's deeper embrace of open source technologies.

Microsoft is the first major cloud provider with a program specifically intended to shield its customers' intellectual property (IP) from lawsuits filed by nonpracticing entities -- more commonly known as patent trolls. Microsoft Azure IP Advantage isn't expected to be a game changer for the platform, but it will likely be welcomed by certain customers and could signal to enterprises yet another example that Microsoft understands their needs.

The program includes uncapped indemnification coverage, which protects any underlying open source technology used in Azure, such as Hadoop for Azure HDInsight. Customers also will have access to 10,000 patents that Microsoft said represent its overall portfolio, and those patents can't be used against customers if Microsoft ever transfers them to a nonpracticing entity.

Microsoft consulting company eMazzanti Technologies saw a sixtyfold increase in Azure consumption by its customers in 2016, so this new service will provide a level of comfort for companies that build IP on the increasingly popular platform, said Carl Mazzanti, CEO of the Hoboken, N.J., company.

"Not everyone can afford to fight something that may or may not be baseless, so it's great to have a larger organization step in and say, 'We're going to take on those fights on your behalf, just go ahead and do what you're doing,'" he said.

Technology companies have become targets for patent trolls, but it's debatable whether IP faces any greater threat from patent trolls in the cloud than on premises. In a blog post that outlined the program, Microsoft cited a Boston Consulting Group study that found a 22% rise in cloud-based IP lawsuits in the U.S., and a 35% increase in patent acquisitions by nonpracticing entities over the past five years. But that rate of increase is slower than overall cloud adoption during the same time.

Still, the free service could factor into the decision for customers that evaluate Azure against a provider that tells software companies they're on their own, said Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"It's kind of like travel insurance," he said." You don't necessarily think of your trip going wrong or there being any incidents, but if it does happen, it could become a big deal really, really quickly."

Azure IP Advantage will be a boon to independent software vendors, many of which rely on open source to build their IP, said John Rymer, also a Forrester analyst.

"Some of Microsoft's products are open source, too, and so an ISV that's generating significant revenue from a [software-as-a-service] offering that's running on Azure is a big fat target for a patent troll," he said.

And while the program is initially targeted at that subset, it could have much broader implications.

"If you believe in the future, as most of us do, that every company is going to be a software company in some fashion, then the whole economy is subject to this," Rymer said.

Microsoft open to open source

For folks who might be more conservative or a little bit more paranoid about getting sued because of what cloud provider they might be using, this could put them at rest.
Jeffrey Hammondanalyst, Forrester

Microsoft has boosted its acceptance of open source technology, especially since Satya Nadella took over as CEO. Azure has been at the forefront of that push, with Linux VMs and open source container technologies getting first-class treatment on the platform. So, that prominence makes it a logical place to protect against patent trolls.

"The Azure team is ahead of the curve and more liberal in its thinking than other parts of Microsoft, but [Microsoft] gets it," Rymer said.

While Microsoft has changed its tune on open source, this program also could ease concerns from traditional enterprises still wary of those technologies, especially with Microsoft's history of doing this exact type of patent trolling in the past with technologies such as Android, Hammond said.

"I still run into enterprise organizations that have general counsels that remain somewhat concerned about open source for strategic applications," Hammond said. "For folks who might be more conservative or a little bit more paranoid about getting sued because of what cloud provider they might be using, this could put them at rest."

Trevor Jones is a news writer with SearchCloudComputing and SearchAWS. Contact him at [email protected].

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