There are probably a lot of IT managers who could look at what happened to Microsoft on Tuesday and say, “There but for the grace of Plurk go I.”
The world's largest software company was forced to admit that Juku, a Twitter-like social networking service it was offering in China, ripped off code from Mississauga, Ont.-based Plurk, which is also apparently becoming popular overseas. Plurk suspected something was a little too familar with the user interface and source code from the beginning and Microsoft later had to confirm it with a statement that placed the blame on a third-party developer that was working with its MSN China joint venture.
“When we hire an outside company to do development work, our practice is to include strong language in our contract that clearly states the company must provide work that does not infringe the intellectual property rights of others. We are a company that respects intellectual property and it was never our intent to have a site that was not respectful of the work that others in the industry have done.”
The IT industry might be more forgiving if Microsoft was not so completely relentless in chasing down anyone, particularly in China, who messes with its own source code. Combating piracy is an ongoing activity in Redmond and here in Canada as well. It employs considerable resources not only to monitor distribution of Windows and other software, but to prosecute even small-time offenders with fines or worse. Its leaders will speak at length about the importance of being above board with source code. To have copied Plurk, even indirectly, is to have failed to live up to its own principles.
Though the third-party vendor may have violated the terms of the contract, it would seem only reasonable that Microsoft, which employs some of the most skilled software engineers in the world, would review the code of a product like Juku to ensure the contract terms were being properly adhered to. This is a due diligence phase of bringing something to market. Yes, it's something that IT departments in private companies probably fail to do half the time, but those companies aren't Microsoft.
Like a lot of large organizations, Microsoft was contracting out work in an area in which it has little expertise, in this case social networking products. It was also offering Juku in a market where, I suspect, there is less scrutiny over the ins and outs of social networking UIs. It would be interesting to know whether, had Juku been aimed primarily at a North American audience, someone at Microsoft would have double-checked what the competition's product looked like.
“In the wake of this incident, Microsoft and our MSN China joint venture will be taking a look at our practices around applications code provided by third-party vendors.” Ya think? Given its high visibility among IT departments around the world and its reputation among consumers, this is a rather weak promise. I can guarantee you there are software projects being developed in all kinds of companies with third parties that are doing just enough to get the job done and leaving the legal accountability up to the client. Given that this is not the first time it's gone through such an incident — even recently — Microsoft should not hope this story disappears over the holidays but instead treat it as an opportunity to reinforce its own standards and educate its users on how to do the same.