Taking a Hard Stance on Microsoft

Lawyer Thomas Vinje talks about why the industry group he represents is going after the software giant to create "a level playing field"

Thomas Vinje, a partner in the Brussels office of multinational law firm Clifford Chance, has been crossing swords with Microsoft (MSFT) for at least 16 years. In 1989 the San Francisco law firm of Morrison & Foerster dispatched him to Brussels to represent such clients as Fujitsu and NCR (NCR) on emerging software copyright law in the European Union.

In 1999, the Washington-based Computer & Communications Industry Assn. hired Vinje to argue its case against Microsoft before EU officials. He continued to represent the CCIA after joining Clifford Chance in 2004.

And when the CCIA struck a settlement with Microsoft that same year, Vinje parted ways with the organization and revived a group he had helped form in 1989, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, to continue to challenge Microsoft in the EU legal arena (see BW, 3/20/06, "Speak Softly and Carry a Thick Brief").

Its members include IBM (IBM), Oracle (ORCL) and Sun Microsystems (SUNW). While in London recently visiting Yahoo! (YHOO), another client, Vinje met with BusinessWeek European Regional Editor Jack Ewing. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation.

You were born in Seattle and grew up in Kirkland, Wash., not far from Microsoft headquarters in Redmond. Have you ever met Bill Gates?

No. When I was young we used to buy milk at a farm in Redmond. But Microsoft didn't exist then. It was just a twinkle in Bill Gates's eye.

When did you first come up against Microsoft as a lawyer?

I have sort of shadowboxed with [Microsoft General Counsel] Brad Smith since 1989 [when both were lobbying European Union officials on software issues]. The same issues being addressed today have, in different ways, been around for a long time.

Is representing Microsoft antagonists just a job for you or more than that?

To some extent it's what the Germans call a Glaubenssache [a matter of conviction]. I would have difficulty being on the other side of these issues.

I'm not averse to representing dominant companies under certain circumstances. I have no innate objection to dominance if it's achieved through innovation and legitimate competitive behavior. But at the same time, I have a deep conviction that there has to be a level playing field.

Companies must be able to compete on the merits of their creativity and hard work. I'm getting paid well -- I don't deny that. But I feel good about it. I'm an idealist. Who controls the Internet has great social and economic implications.

Microsoft says that the industry group you represent, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) is just a front for IBM. What is your response?

That's really galling. ECIS was founded in 1989. It has been involved in all the important intellectual property debates since 1989. To say it was recently formed just for IBM is ludicrous.

You used to represent the Computer & Communications Industry Assn., which then settled with Microsoft in 2004. As you know, the settlement, which included legal fees, was heavily criticized by citizen groups who saw it as a sell-out. Is there any chance of a similar settlement in Europe?

I don't want to go there. I was not involved at all. I would never be involved in such a thing in any case. It would be a breach of ethical rules in Europe [where lawyer contingency fees are not permitted]. I don't think [a settlement] is a possibility. This is about compliance with the law. [The members of ECIS] are concerned about the competitive landscape. They're not in this for the money.

In February, ECIS filed a new complaint that accuses Microsoft of trying to extend its dominance via planned new products, such as a new operating system for servers. What does that mean exactly?

What Microsoft is trying to do now is bundle digital rights management products into the operating system. We've seen this movie before. We've seen it with Netscape, with RealPlayer [which lost massive market share after Microsoft bundled similar products into Windows].

Microsoft has 70% of the overall server market, they are certainly dominant. Try selling digital rights management products when there is already a usable one in the operating system.

Is fighting Microsoft all you do?

It takes about half of my time. I have a lot of other things. Also, I don't want to glorify myself. I'm part of a team. I have always had other people supporting me.

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