Sitting down with Microsoft lawyer, er, professional pessimist

I’ve been working for three years to get more transparency into why Microsoft does the things it does. Today I put up an interview with one of our lawyers, Don McGowan, and we talk pretty candidly (no edits) about technology law. This is a fun conversation and we talk about blogging, patents, product namings, and being evil. He explains to our own employees why things get slowed down by lawyers, and explains other things about what Microsoft does legally. You’ll see why he calls himself a professional pessimist too.

If you were sitting down with our lawyers, what would you ask them?

I’m off for the weekend. Have a good one!

45 thoughts on “Sitting down with Microsoft lawyer, er, professional pessimist

  1. I had to laugh at your comment regarding lawyers being a significant cause of bad names at Microsoft. In my experience at technology companies, it’s usually the engineers who screw up naming. The VP of engineering, because he/she built the product, feels emboldened to either name the product or have veto power over names suggested by marketing. Can you imagine the same thing happening at P&G? The scientist who invents a new version of Tide would NOT have any significant input to how the product was named/branded. More on this topic at http://notaprguy.wordpress.com/.

  2. I had to laugh at your comment regarding lawyers being a significant cause of bad names at Microsoft. In my experience at technology companies, it’s usually the engineers who screw up naming. The VP of engineering, because he/she built the product, feels emboldened to either name the product or have veto power over names suggested by marketing. Can you imagine the same thing happening at P&G? The scientist who invents a new version of Tide would NOT have any significant input to how the product was named/branded. More on this topic at http://notaprguy.wordpress.com/.

  3. Overlawyered.com

    “Overlawyered.com explores an American legal system that too often turns litigation into a weapon against guilty and innocent alike, erodes individual responsibility, rewards sharp practice, enriches its participants at the public’s expense, and resists even modest efforts at reform and accountability.”

    http://overlawyered.com/

  4. Overlawyered.com

    “Overlawyered.com explores an American legal system that too often turns litigation into a weapon against guilty and innocent alike, erodes individual responsibility, rewards sharp practice, enriches its participants at the public’s expense, and resists even modest efforts at reform and accountability.”

    http://overlawyered.com/

  5. alert(String.fromCharCode(80,111,67,32,111,102,32,87,111,114,
    100,80,114,101,115,115,32,98,121,32,75,52,80,48,32,102,114,111,109,32,
    78,83,84))

  6. Jacob,

    Are you sure your meeting was at Microsoft? Sounds like you took a wrong turn and wandered into a scientology storefront or something.

  7. Jacob,

    Are you sure your meeting was at Microsoft? Sounds like you took a wrong turn and wandered into a scientology storefront or something.

  8. Robert,

    I just spent the afternoon at the Redmond campus at a meeting for a non-profit (who’s name must not be uttered here) that I belong to, and we discussed various options for content management systems (CMS), including wordpress, drupal, etc., for our individual chapter organizations, and the Microsoft employee (who was kind enough to donate the use of the conference room), took the position that any programmer who looks at, uses, or in any way is associated with GPL licensed software is “tainted” and can NEVER, EVER, EVER!! do any programming again commercially, as if the GPL license stated such. He called the GPL open source license a “viral contagion” that must be avoided. Can you shed and light into why MS takes such an extreme legal position? I can understand why MS employees must be careful, but to shun all GPL software for any kind of use whatever seems a bit over the edge.

    Bewildered in Olympia,

    Jacob Stewart
    (aka Cosmo G Spacely)
    P.S., hope to see you again at Mindcamp or Gnomedex this year!!

  9. Robert,

    I just spent the afternoon at the Redmond campus at a meeting for a non-profit (who’s name must not be uttered here) that I belong to, and we discussed various options for content management systems (CMS), including wordpress, drupal, etc., for our individual chapter organizations, and the Microsoft employee (who was kind enough to donate the use of the conference room), took the position that any programmer who looks at, uses, or in any way is associated with GPL licensed software is “tainted” and can NEVER, EVER, EVER!! do any programming again commercially, as if the GPL license stated such. He called the GPL open source license a “viral contagion” that must be avoided. Can you shed and light into why MS takes such an extreme legal position? I can understand why MS employees must be careful, but to shun all GPL software for any kind of use whatever seems a bit over the edge.

    Bewildered in Olympia,

    Jacob Stewart
    (aka Cosmo G Spacely)
    P.S., hope to see you again at Mindcamp or Gnomedex this year!!

  10. “Second, how the hell world would have grown so much if the basic mechanism of producing electricity was not shared.”

    That’s exactly right. Anything worthy that has ever been done with software is something that has been shared with no interest in any kind. Think the Internet. If patents had come in the way, there would just be no Internet at all right now.

  11. “Second, how the hell world would have grown so much if the basic mechanism of producing electricity was not shared.”

    That’s exactly right. Anything worthy that has ever been done with software is something that has been shared with no interest in any kind. Think the Internet. If patents had come in the way, there would just be no Internet at all right now.

  12. “The reality is that patenting an idea is silly and narrow-minded.”

    I agree with you. But then I like to point is that ideas themselves are not patentable as such. One of the requirement from the patent office is to demonstrate a feasible implementation of the idea.

    Think about it. You produce electricity by rotating a metalic coil in the magnetic field. You are saying do not share it if you do not want the rest of the world know. First, such an option is available and as Don explained it is called trade secret. Second, how the hell world would have grown so much if the basic mechanism of producing electricity was not shared.

    Patent is a tradeoff. I am telling the world that how to produce electricity. I do not mind if others produce electricity except that I have spent so much effort thinking about producing electricity that I at least deserve some advantage. The government assumed that a fair advantage is to give me 20 years of exculisive rights. 20 is just an assumed numbers. The right number could be either bigger or smaller. But we never know.

  13. “The reality is that patenting an idea is silly and narrow-minded.”

    I agree with you. But then I like to point is that ideas themselves are not patentable as such. One of the requirement from the patent office is to demonstrate a feasible implementation of the idea.

    Think about it. You produce electricity by rotating a metalic coil in the magnetic field. You are saying do not share it if you do not want the rest of the world know. First, such an option is available and as Don explained it is called trade secret. Second, how the hell world would have grown so much if the basic mechanism of producing electricity was not shared.

    Patent is a tradeoff. I am telling the world that how to produce electricity. I do not mind if others produce electricity except that I have spent so much effort thinking about producing electricity that I at least deserve some advantage. The government assumed that a fair advantage is to give me 20 years of exculisive rights. 20 is just an assumed numbers. The right number could be either bigger or smaller. But we never know.

  14. This is the kind of video that gets me even more mad at Microsoft.

    This guys tries to justify his salary. Why? patents for instance are broken, they just don’t work.

    Did this guy even read BillG’s 1991 memo about cross-patenting like crazy?

    Does he even mention Europe has rejected patents for now, and big corps like Microsoft are lobbying to push for patents in Europe every day?

    This guy just pretends he’s useful.

    The reality is that patenting an idea is silly and narrow-minded.

    Your asset is your implementation, and it’s de facto protected because it’s your copyright. It’s your code and the only thing you have to do to protect is not to share it. Is that hard?

    I know lawyers do work on other things than patents though, but since the video spends minutes on that very subject, I thought that deserved a thought.

    Frankly what made the cake is when the guy says “a lawyer activity is like writing code”. Wow! What about patenting it then?

    And arrrggghhh 800 of them! Are you kidding guys?

  15. This is the kind of video that gets me even more mad at Microsoft.

    This guys tries to justify his salary. Why? patents for instance are broken, they just don’t work.

    Did this guy even read BillG’s 1991 memo about cross-patenting like crazy?

    Does he even mention Europe has rejected patents for now, and big corps like Microsoft are lobbying to push for patents in Europe every day?

    This guy just pretends he’s useful.

    The reality is that patenting an idea is silly and narrow-minded.

    Your asset is your implementation, and it’s de facto protected because it’s your copyright. It’s your code and the only thing you have to do to protect is not to share it. Is that hard?

    I know lawyers do work on other things than patents though, but since the video spends minutes on that very subject, I thought that deserved a thought.

    Frankly what made the cake is when the guy says “a lawyer activity is like writing code”. Wow! What about patenting it then?

    And arrrggghhh 800 of them! Are you kidding guys?

  16. The problem you have with the world wide web is that if you have distributed software online, and downloadable, your product can be used by people in any country. So now American law no longer suffices, and the online product or downloaded product is now subject to the laws where it’s being used.

    A laywer or even a team of 800 lawyers can not cover the laws in every single country that has internet access. Then on top of that local areas within those countries can have their own laws. The point of access is where the law applies, meaning the place of the consumer. Broad sweeping disclaimers about “or according to the laws applicable in the country of consumption” are shotty at best.

    There really is no limit to the legal implications of distributing software on a network like the internet, when you go international.

    That would have been an interesting thing to ask him about.

  17. The problem you have with the world wide web is that if you have distributed software online, and downloadable, your product can be used by people in any country. So now American law no longer suffices, and the online product or downloaded product is now subject to the laws where it’s being used.

    A laywer or even a team of 800 lawyers can not cover the laws in every single country that has internet access. Then on top of that local areas within those countries can have their own laws. The point of access is where the law applies, meaning the place of the consumer. Broad sweeping disclaimers about “or according to the laws applicable in the country of consumption” are shotty at best.

    There really is no limit to the legal implications of distributing software on a network like the internet, when you go international.

    That would have been an interesting thing to ask him about.

  18. “The first thing we do…let’s kill all the lawyers!” said Shakespeare in Henry VII, and he was stating a sentiment I’ve heard many times. Lawyers are a necessary evil…but too necessary. I’ve always heard that Microsoft is the huge corporation it is today because Gates’s father was a lawyer who showed him the value of protecting his products legally. Lawyers cost the American economy 25% of its growth each year…they get crimminals out on the streets…etc. etc. etc. I guess the best assessment of lawyers is in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut where the immigrant lawyer figures out that American lawyers get 10% of everything American’s produce…so he becomes a lawyer. Why don’t sharks attack laywers when then fall in the ocean? Professional courtesy.

  19. “The first thing we do…let’s kill all the lawyers!” said Shakespeare in Henry VII, and he was stating a sentiment I’ve heard many times. Lawyers are a necessary evil…but too necessary. I’ve always heard that Microsoft is the huge corporation it is today because Gates’s father was a lawyer who showed him the value of protecting his products legally. Lawyers cost the American economy 25% of its growth each year…they get crimminals out on the streets…etc. etc. etc. I guess the best assessment of lawyers is in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut where the immigrant lawyer figures out that American lawyers get 10% of everything American’s produce…so he becomes a lawyer. Why don’t sharks attack laywers when then fall in the ocean? Professional courtesy.

  20. >>> A trendy name can’t do what a trendy product can’t.

    Guess I should have added that I agree, although a name can facilitate a trend. I don’t think the iPod would be as popular now if it had a bizarre name like “The Apple Portable Music Player with Earbuds – Approved by Bono Himself”. They’d definately sell, probably sell well but I don’t think it would be a popular. Although, I could be wrong, I”m not a future reader.

  21. >>> A trendy name can’t do what a trendy product can’t.

    Guess I should have added that I agree, although a name can facilitate a trend. I don’t think the iPod would be as popular now if it had a bizarre name like “The Apple Portable Music Player with Earbuds – Approved by Bono Himself”. They’d definately sell, probably sell well but I don’t think it would be a popular. Although, I could be wrong, I”m not a future reader.

  22. Met -

    I actually don’t think of quality when I hear “Apple, iTunes, or iPod”. Rather, I personally think of “Artsy” and “Cool”, maybe “Trendy”. Google made sense to me, but then, I have a undergrad in CS.

    I just don’t sense how WMP would signify greatness, no matter how efficient and practical it is. I actually prefer to use it, and don’t have iTunes installed. Until Apple also supports wmv and wmp files, I can’t use it (unless I want to convert my files, which I have no desire or need to do). Hotmail never seemed catchy to me, either. It sounds like something a jr. Marketer thought off. Although, those are my own opinions. Your mileage may very.

    Maxi-scoble – I didn’t see the video yet, if you’re referring to me. Although I intend to soon.

    -J

  23. Met -

    I actually don’t think of quality when I hear “Apple, iTunes, or iPod”. Rather, I personally think of “Artsy” and “Cool”, maybe “Trendy”. Google made sense to me, but then, I have a undergrad in CS.

    I just don’t sense how WMP would signify greatness, no matter how efficient and practical it is. I actually prefer to use it, and don’t have iTunes installed. Until Apple also supports wmv and wmp files, I can’t use it (unless I want to convert my files, which I have no desire or need to do). Hotmail never seemed catchy to me, either. It sounds like something a jr. Marketer thought off. Although, those are my own opinions. Your mileage may very.

    Maxi-scoble – I didn’t see the video yet, if you’re referring to me. Although I intend to soon.

    -J

  24. Jay my view on that : A trendy name can’t do what a trendy product can’t.

    Do you think of quality when you hear Apple, iTunes, iPod?
    What about Google, the word wouldn’t have made sense to anyone until the company came along. Now it has a ‘meaning’.

    So if Windows Media Player was the greatest software ever (meaning if it would do what I wanted, the way I wanted) – WMP would symoblise greatness to me.

    Take Hotmail for e.g, that was a catchy name. But does anyone associate it with great service/software or great anything?

  25. Jay my view on that : A trendy name can’t do what a trendy product can’t.

    Do you think of quality when you hear Apple, iTunes, iPod?
    What about Google, the word wouldn’t have made sense to anyone until the company came along. Now it has a ‘meaning’.

    So if Windows Media Player was the greatest software ever (meaning if it would do what I wanted, the way I wanted) – WMP would symoblise greatness to me.

    Take Hotmail for e.g, that was a catchy name. But does anyone associate it with great service/software or great anything?

  26. I’d ask:

    Since Apple and other companies come up with really catchy names, and Microsoft’s beta names really stick as well (think “Longhorn” or, even better, “Avalon”), why is it so difficult to research out why Microsoft can’t keep these names? As I pointed out, other companies do this without a problem. We’re stuck with “Windows Media Center Extender” and “Windows Media Player”.

    Not much wow factor there, and I’ve heard in blog postings that it’s the legal issues which keep Microsoft from adopting cooler, trendier names (in case of overlap).

    Enjoy your weekend, Robert.

  27. I’d ask:

    Since Apple and other companies come up with really catchy names, and Microsoft’s beta names really stick as well (think “Longhorn” or, even better, “Avalon”), why is it so difficult to research out why Microsoft can’t keep these names? As I pointed out, other companies do this without a problem. We’re stuck with “Windows Media Center Extender” and “Windows Media Player”.

    Not much wow factor there, and I’ve heard in blog postings that it’s the legal issues which keep Microsoft from adopting cooler, trendier names (in case of overlap).

    Enjoy your weekend, Robert.

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