Linux patent suit: In search of the Microsoft smoking gun

Summary:Now that the "first ever" suit for patent infringement has been lodged against two major Linux distributors, many Microsoft watchers are looking for the smoking gun that will somehow connect Microsoft to the case. So far, at least, that gun is nonexistent.

Now that the "first ever" suit for patent infringement has been lodged against two major Linux distributors, many Microsoft watchers are looking for the smoking gun that will somehow connect Microsoft to the case.

Linux patent suit: In search of the Microsoft smoking gun
I have to say that it's hard to believe that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's recent railings about the likelihood of someone suing Red Hat for patent infringement were purely coincidental. His timing makes it look like he had knowledge that such a suit was in the pipeline. But so far, at least, there's no proof that Microsoft was behind this case in any way.

However, there are still some interesting Microsoft connections to the suit, which pits IP Innovation and Technology Licensing Corp. against Red Hat and Novell. The suit claims that IP Innovation has rights to patents covering "a user interface with multiple workspaces for sharing display system objects" (patent no. 5,072,412, issued on December 10, 1991), as well as two other similar patents upon which Red Hat and Novell allegedly infringe.

So where and how does Microsoft enter the picture? As Pamela Jones of Groklaw.Net fame pointed out, IP Innovation LLC is a subsidiary of Acacia Technologies Group Inc. Acacia is "in the business of acquiring, developing, licensing and enforcing patents." From the Acacia Web site:

"We help patent holders protect their patented inventions from unauthorized use and generate revenue from licensing and, if necessary, enforcing their patents. Our clients are primarily individual inventors and small companies with limited resources to deal with unauthorized users but include some large companies wanting to generate revenues from their patented technologies."

Is Microsoft an Acacia client? There's no press release I can find stating that it is. (I've asked Microsoft whether it is, but no word back yet.) Ironically, Novell is an Acacia client, (as of August 31) but on the storage side of the business, not the Linux one.

Update: Microsoft's official response to the Acacia/IP Innovation suit, via a company spokesman:

"Microsoft is not a party to Acacia's lawsuit against Red Hat and Novell, nor are we involved in any way in this litigation."

Now here's where things get interesting: Acacia has hired two Microsoft veterans in the past year. On October 1, Acacia hired Brad Brunell, who most recently served as Microsoft's General Manager of Intellectual Property Licensing, as a Senior Vice President. In July, Jonathan Taub, former Director of Strategic Alliances for Microsoft's Mobile and Embedded business unit, joined Acacia as a Vice President.

Brunell's background is especially noteworthy here:

"Mr. Brunell, as General Manager, Intellectual Property Licensing, was responsible for inbound and outbound patent licensing. He created and managed a team of negotiation, financial and legal experts which developed outbound intellectual property licensing programs and brought in intellectual property via acquisitions, strategic partnerships and licensing.

"Previously as a Senior Director he was in a strategy role focusing on digital media adoption which included key deals with Time Warner and the Walt Disney Company, leading the negotiating team for the settlement of the Intertrust patent litigation, and putting together the Content Guard ownership structure between Microsoft, Time Warner and Thomson. He also served on the board of Content Guard, a digital rights management patent licensing company."

All this said, there are a couple of things that don't add up, if you're looking for ways Microsoft might be connected to this lawsuit. Why would Microsoft want Novell, its favorite open-source-partner poster child, to be dragged into this? Why not get Canonical or Mandriva or one of the other holdouts who've refused to sign patent-protection clauses with Microsoft named, instead? Stay tuned, as the West Coast wakes up, for more on this one....

(bang bang (#118). Image by j / f / photos. CC 2.0)

Topics: Operating Systems, Enterprise Software, Legal, Linux, Microsoft, Open Source, Software

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.