Understanding Microsoft

Part 33. The Cheater

Almost every classroom has one of them: the kid who cheats on every test, the guy or girl who insists on copying from other people's work and then expects a good grade as a result. Not humble enough to accept their own ineptitude, they must force the outcome to be favorable at all costs. Not diligent enough to improve their own skills, they seek to bum a free ride off somebody else's hard work. Not wise enough to realize that they will eventually be caught, they often end up punished and ostracized.

In the realm of intellectual property in the business world, this often occurs between competing software companies. Numerous lawsuits have taken place in the last few years, suits over such topics as look-and-feel, macro languages, and memory addressing schemes. This is because people expect that once they invent something, nobody else should get a free ride and bring it to market without due compensation. This is the way intellectual property laws are designed to work, but the outcome is seldom that clear-cut.

While stories abound about Microsoft paying a visit to "just take a look" at what some software maker is developing, and then later coming out with a similar product, the fact is that Microsoft has almost never been taken to court on these charges. One of those rare exceptions occurred in 1994, when Stac Electronic successfully brought suit in civil court against Microsoft for the alleged theft of the code for Stacker disk compression software. The court ruled that Stac had indeed suffered significant financial damage as a result of Microsoft's actions, and Stac was awarded a judgment of $120 million against the software giant. While not admitting any guilt, Microsoft settled out of court instead of appealing the ruling. Stac thus extracted a monetary award of $83 million, giving up a small share of ownership to Microsoft in the process.

The interesting result of this case is that the product that Microsoft brought to market that angered Stac, MS-DOS 6.0 with DoubleSpace drive compression technology, actually proved to be quite a problem for many people. In fact, the DoubleSpace was nicknamed "Troublespace" by some pundits, because some people actually lost all their data and programs from using it! This sounds a little bit like the kid who cheated on the test, but still managed to flunk out anyway. Not smart enough to fix their previous products, Microsoft certainly seemed to be able to botch DoubleSpace as well, whether it acquired the code fairly or not. Later versions of DoubleSpace (named DriveSpace) seemed to be less problematic.

Microsoft has not yet publicly admitted guilt in any of its various lawsuits, but it may be only a matter of time before the kid is sent to the principal and told to copy something else on a sheet of paper -- or worse.

Most recent revision: February 12, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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