Has Microsoft fired its first shot in the patent war against Linux?

Has Microsoft fired its first shot in the patent war against Linux?

Summary: While Microsoft will vehemently deny it, a lawsuit filed earlier this week by Microsoft against in-car GPS maker TomTom represents the first shot fired in the Microsoft vs. free software war.


While Microsoft will vehemently deny it, a lawsuit filed earlier this week by Microsoft against in-car GPS maker TomTom represents the first shot fired  in the Microsoft vs. free software war.

According to Todd Bishop writing for TechFlash, there are eight patent violations in question here. Five relate to Microsoft software, while the remaining three relate to TomTom's implementation of the Linux kernel.

Documents: Complaint filed in federal court, and complaint filed with ITC.

According to Microsoft, it turned to the courts after trying to "engage in licensing discussions" with TomTom for "more than a year." The Redmond giant is also keen to shift the focus away from Linux and open source:

"(O)pen source software is not the focal point of this action. The case against TomTom, a global commercial manufacturer and seller of proprietary embedded hardware devices, involves infringement of Microsoft patents by TomTom devices that employ both proprietary and open-source software code."

[poll id="437"]

We don't have TomTom's side of the story yet, but this sounds to me either like TomTom took the Red Hat approach and decided that there was no reason to sign up to Microsoft's patent protection licensing deals, or that the terms Microsoft were offering weren't acceptable.

So, what's the Linux connection here? It comes down to the Linux VFAT filesystem which is compatible with Windows long filenames, and this is significant for Linux since VFAT is part of the GPLed kernel code.

Microsoft has long claimed that Linux violates a number of patents it holds. Back in 2004 Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer claimed Linux violated 228 patents (it turned out that his data was based on a misunderstanding of a PUBPAT report).

Then in 2007, Microsoft told Forbes that Linux and "open source" in general violated 235 patents, the breakdown of which was as follows:

  • 42 in the Linux kernel
  • 65 in the Linux graphical user interfaces violated 65
  • 45 in Open Office
  • 15 violations in free or open source email apps
  • 65 other random violations

Microsoft used this as a lever against Linux companies to get them to sign up to patent protection and licensing deals.

Why has Microsoft chosen to target TomTom? I'll be honest and say I'm not sure. Linux has seen very rapid adoption by consumer device manufacturers because the OS is cheap, so I guess any vendor that hadn't signed up to the patent protection and licensing deals was fair game. Microsoft had to start somewhere ...

I get the feeling this is going to get ugly.

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

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  • The cornered rat is always the most dangerous

    Simply put, Linux is threatening Microsoft's proprietary model of extracting profits. Others have put it another way: Linux is a disruptive technology: one that overturns the traditional way of doing business up to the point where Linux came on the scene. Like any cornered rat, or monopoly, Microsoft will scratch claw and bite at anything that it believes will assist it to survive and keep its profits intact. And that is what we are now seeing. Remember, Microsoft always, always, ALWAYS has one aim in mind: survive no matter what the cost and keep the money rolling in. It does not matter if Microsoft damages USA innovation, lateral thinking and success in other areas, as long as it survives and keeps its money. As long as Microsoft controls and makes obscene profits, who cares ? The problem is however, that Microsoft does NOT control what the rest of the world is doing, and they have realised the dangers of monopoly control. Unless Microsoft is stopped, the USA runs the real danger of losing its cutting edge in IT development and innovation, and I for one would not like to see that either. But then, what would I know ? I just watch and comment on what I can see from the outside........and it is not pretty.
    • And one more thing......IBM and others

      There is one more aspect that would make the Vole.......ooops, sorry, would make Microsoft tread very, very carefully. IBM is backing Linux and open source. Given that fact, and the patent war-chest now held by various bodies friendly to open source, Microsoft may find itself in a very nasty patent war which I am sure it cannot win and frankly, I don't think it is in anyone's interests in the current economic climate to go into expensive litigation. But then it is also difficult to work out how a cornered rat's processes work.....so the Vole could actually go for broke........I doubt it though. Look to see this settled and Linux left out of the deal - completely.
      • Well said.

        It's up to citizens to outclass its sh*tty "business leaders", unless you always want to live in a backwards and ignored island that the rest of us just laugh at.

      • I was going to send a response

        Then I realized it would be wasted here. So in short: MS is abusing power; Linux runs on free labor and these people are going to need to earn a living at some point; Linux shifts the money from the OS maker to the legions of consultants; in the end the price is not better for most shops.
        • And there is not a legion of consultants of Windows?

          Get real. The only cost change is not paying for the OS VS paying for the
          OS. You still have a legion of consultants and programmers and
          designers and engineers to deal with regardless of using an embedded
          Windows or Linux or Greenhill or ...
          • Let's not forget the protection racket

            It seems what Microsoft is doing is akin to what the Mafia would do: pay me money or "accidents" (litigation) are going to happen. If anything, I'd tell Microsoft to go forth and multiply simply because of this fact; no one that's had to pay protection money has had good experiences with it.
          • Well said superbus

            Much more polite than what I muttered when I read about this.

            I will say that Monkeyman could well have a higher form of life residing in his descending colon.
        • NOT TRUE!

          The major difference is that if you don't like your current *nix vendor you have an option to move to another. Microsoft has the highest cost to exit of any environment, once you have invested it is [i]very difficult[/i] to move to other platforms so you are in effect locked in. The reason I have gotten fed up with them is because in the end they were significantly more expensive for most solutions over time. My customers trust me to give them solid advice, I can't in good conscience recommend Microsoft for many of them.
          • Hear hear

            They are not only significantly more expensive over time, but increasingly their products are simply not fit for purpose compared with all the alternatives. Vista are Internet Exoplorer are classic examples. Extracting yourself from this mess can be a slow and painful experience, but I know of no one that has looked back once they've made the transition. This is the problem facing Microsoft. There are real alternatives these days and they don't have the products to fight back with, so they are now resorting to dirty tricks.
        • Free labour?

          I don't know about you, but I am paid quite well to implement code on Linux ($60k+)

          It's in my employer's interest to use open source and to contribute modifications back to the open source pool. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts - and a LOT cheaper than proprietary solutions as well as (perhaps paradoxically) being less buggy and better supported than many of the older proprietary solutions we used to use with 5-6 figure support contracts.

          There isn't a competition issue - if our competitors use opensource (GPL) they must contribute back to the pool too.

          The biggest problem with opensource comes when outfits breach licensing conditions by selling modified GPL code without contributing those parts back. (This is common among set-top TV decoders and DVR manufacturers)

          If they are using GPL code and distribute their modified code without disclosure, that becomes a simple case of software piracy - however the problem at the moment is that it's hard to prosecute such cases (but it has happened, Dlink had their asses spanked in German courts 2 years ago).

          Uncle Stoat
      • And one more thing......IBM and others

        Linux is already out of the deal; they are not suing Linux. This case will be decided on the merits of this case, not some prior or futher dealings. I don't think IBM is going to expend its resources defending this or any other patent violations, unless it is a suit against them. Of course, I could be wrong. In any case I'll bet Microsoft will win this. Any odds?
        • Where have you been lately?

          I don't know if anyone recalls, but I.B.M. has opened up its PATENT
          PORTFOLIO to protect Linux & FOSS. I wonder who has more patents?
          Microsoft with it's Intertwined Exploiter, or my BIG BROTHER, I.B.M. Long
          live International Business Machines.

          "In a world without walls & fences, who needs windows & gates?"
          • Greetings intellihence

            You have forgetten how IBM behaved in the early days of PCs.

            They were very much like Microsoft is now.
          • Yes, they indeed were.

            And they eventually suffered the painful consequences.

            But they were able to adapt and changed their ways; they learned their lesson, and now are much more in tune with their customers and clients wants and needs -- they are respected for their ability to deliver solutions, rather than for their power to inflict pain.

            The real questions is whether Microsoft can do the same.
          • They still are

            Who is under anti-trust investigation for their mainframe business?

            IBM likes open source because it helps them sell (endless) consulting time. But suggest something that lets others compete in [i]their[/i] home markets (like mainframes), and watch the shutters come down fast.
      • LATEST UPDATE on what the suit means.

        There are excellent discussions now out on what the suit is going to mean for both Linux and Microsoft. What everybody is missing is that:

        1. Are now in a "post Bilski" world.....software patents no longer have the validity that they once had. To see why, check out this current article:

        2. Prior art is almost certainly going to be used to destroy the suit anyway. Andy Updegrove and his technology law firm have put out a large summary of the situation.Check this out:

        Frankly, from where I see it at the moment, Microsoft may very likely be playing with fire and will lose far more than they win, if they win anything at all. The opinions from two major players in the legal arena strongly suggest that Microsoft's patents will ultimately be rendered totally invalid. The situation remains fascinating.
        • Good post

          I agree
        • Outstanding post!

          What's referenced in the parent post is far more informative than the original article. TomTom knows that software patents are all but extinct. So does Microsoft.

          It's amazing to watch a behemoth continue to entangle itself in classic monopoly defenses rather than to simply address its customer's desires and needs for universal access to data and true interoperability.

          Even if - through the power of money over justice - Microsoft wins in court, they accelerate their loss in customer confidence. This one has to be for stockholders blinded by a [misguided] hope for short-term gain.
        • Two birds with one stone.

          The Linux related part appears to be over use of vfat file format -- another case of a brain-dead obvious, simple-minded kludge that should never have received a patent grant in the first place.

          Microsoft's first aim here is to make sure that any and every company making consumer electronic products, that by are by default able to interface with the currently dominant Windows desktop platform, has to pay MS a tax for the "privilege" of simply reading and writing to an obsolete, lowest-common-denominator file format.

          They don't even have to win a legal judgment, if they can make an example of Tom-Tom that other consumer electronics manufactures are loathe to emulate. Remember that quite recently NTP managed to litigate and coerce RIM (aka Blackberry) out of over $600 MILLION (and years of court costs) over patents that were, in the end, invalidated even while the case was still in court. So Tom-Tom may well lose regardless of the merits of its position, or else be beaten into the ground by the burden of fighting Microsoft in an interminable and ruinously expensive court battle.

          Microsoft's second aim is of course to create ammunition for an arsenal of "precedents" for future legal claims that Linux somehow infringes on MS's "innovative technologies". For the time being MS spokesmen find it convenient to pretend otherwise, despite MS's many previous comments and recent about Linux infringing on their "Intellectual Property".

          If Microsoft should fail to win either or both goals, they can still maintain the convenient fiction that this action wasn't about Linux at all, and that their anti-Linux patent claims are completely unaffected by the results. However, if MS should happen to defeat Tom-Tom in court, and the court agrees that Tom-Tom's Linux implementation of vfat filesystem-format access infringes Microsoft's patents, you can be quite sure that Microsoft will change it's tune.
      • Patents seem too broad

        Looking at the patents they're claiming have been violated, they seem waaaaaaaaaaaaay too broad. They might as well have patented "a receptacle for the personal transport of coffee from the dispenser to the mouth", aka the coffee cup. Have you looked at these things???!!!!!!
        Dr. John