Microsoft: Litigate on FAT, and you'll be the next Unisys

Microsoft: Litigate on FAT, and you'll be the next Unisys

Summary: Remember "Burn All GIFs" from 1999? In 2009, the Open Source mantra of choice could very easily turn into "Destroy all FATs"If you've been following the news in the Linux community, you've probably heard that Microsoft is currently in a lawsuit with Dutch GPS maker TomTom over what is believed to be a refusal on TomTom's part to cross-license long file name support in Microsoft's FAT32 technology.

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Remember "Burn All GIFs" from 1999? In 2009, the Open Source mantra of choice could very easily turn into "Destroy all FATs"

If you've been following the news in the Linux community, you've probably heard that Microsoft is currently in a lawsuit with Dutch GPS maker TomTom over what is believed to be a refusal on TomTom's part to cross-license long file name support in Microsoft's FAT32 technology.

The Linux kernel, which is released under the GPL2 Open Source license issued by the Free Software Foundation, is used in all TomTom portable GPS devices (and in many other consumer electronics products). The Linux kernel also has the native ability to access media which are formatted with FAT16 and FAT32 (vFAT) filesystems, which were originally implemented by Microsoft for the MS-DOS 3.0 and Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2 operating systems for use as mass storage in hard disk drives.

Today, FAT32 is most frequently used as a format to store data on USB thumb drives, flash memory cards for digital cameras and digital media players (such as Secure Digital, MMC, Sony MemoryStick and CompactFlash) as well as for storing for map information and Points Of Interest (POI) on portable GPS devices, such as the TomTom.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Until now, Microsoft has never pursued any vendor with patent litigation who has used Linux and FAT32 in a consumer electronics product. According to Open Source evangelist and SAMBA developer Jeremy Allison, on a recent comment on Glyn Moody's open source blog, that's because of back-door, secret cross-licensing agreements that were established between the vendors and Microsoft concerning the infringing patents in question which would preclude that from happening.

Be it as it may, according to Allison,  all of these have occurred without the knowledge of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) which originates the GPL2 license. Although such a scenario has never been tested, were the FSF to become aware of such a secret agreement, they would immediately prohibit the vendor from using the Linux kernel in any of their products, as a patent cross-licensing agreement described above would constitute a severe GPL2 violation. In Allison's own words:

What people are missing about this is the either/or choice that Microsoft is giving Tom Tom.

It isn't a case of cross-license and everything is ok. If Tom Tom or any other company cross licenses patents then by section 7 of GPLv2 (for the Linux kernel) they lose the rights to redistribute the kernel *at all*.

Microsoft has been going around and doing these patent cross licensing deals with companies under NDA's so they never come to light for *years*.

That was the whole point of the Novell deal - Microsoft lawyers finally thought they'd found a way to *publicly* do these cross licensing deals and get around the GPLv2, but the GPLv3 put paid to that.

Tom Tom are the first company to publicly refuse to engage in this ugly little protection racket, and so they got sued. Had Tom Tom silently agreed to violate the GPL, as so many others have, then we'd only hear about a vague "patent cross licensing deal" just like the ones Microsoft announces with other companies.

So TomTom decided that it didn't want to participate in such back-door negotiations, and Microsoft went after them. Good for TomTom for not violating the GPL2, but now that this has all become public, if TomTom is forced into licensing the FAT32 patents as a result of Microsoft's legal action, it could forfeit the use of Linux in their products in the future. Which may be exactly what Microsoft wants, as it covets entry into the automotive technology industry, particularly with navigation systems.

Also Read: Who Should Software Freedom Sue on FAT32 (Dana Blankenhorn)

All of this FAT32 patent nonsense all sounds eerily familiar to me. Does anyone remember back in 1999 when Unisys owned the LZW compression algorithm patents, and decided to enforce their patent with every company that used LZW in a product to generate GIF images? Individual websites and end-users became concerned that this litigiousness would extend to smaller fry, so almost overnight, everyone converted from GIF to JPEG, and the "Burn all GIFs" campaign was born. Unisys also attempted (eventually unsuccessfully) to prove that their compression algorithm also covered JPEG -- so the Open Source community went out and created the PNG (Portable Network Graphics) format.

Unisys became a pariah in the Open Source community, their patents for LZW expired, and when they entered the Open Source consulting business years later, they lost all of their credibility and many companies and individuals refused to work with them as a result.

Unisys has still never completely recovered from this. As a former Unisys employee I can speak with authority about this, because every time I used to talk to my friends in the Open Source community about what we were trying to do with Linux and Open Source in our professional services business, I would get the usual "Hey, weren't you the guys who..." preamble.

End of discussion.

If this litigious behavior from Microsoft continues, I don't see why consumer electronics manufacturers which use embedded Linux couldn't just go and standardize their own flash memory filesystem equivalent to PNG. After all, there are other perfectly good file system formats that could be used to store data on SD cards and other flash devices, such as UBIFS and LogFS, which are even more efficient and more resilient at storing data. UBIFS and LogFS also have the advantage of being journaled, whereas FAT32 is not.

The downside of this of course is that FAT32 file system access is built into every PC and every Mac, and to access data on flash storage devices stored in an alternative format, you'd have to develop and distribute new driver software for those platforms. However, like Adobe's Flash Player or Acrobat Reader, which are 3rd-party software plugins, if the software drivers are released with enough consumer electronics products, it could make FAT32 obsolete and completely irrelevant.

Should the consumer electronics industry create an alternative flash media file system format that is free from Microsoft patent licensing? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

[poll id="15"]

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

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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218 comments
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  • read my lips

    M$ threats are worth $0.00, even if they succeed, which they will not.
    When the OS is free their claim is N X $0.00 = ZERO, NADA.
    Linux Geek
    • Where did you get your law degree?

      First and foremost, Microsoft is not suing Linux. They are suing TomTom. TomToms are not free! Your free OS has nothing to do with it!
      ShadeTree
      • First and foremost, Microsoft is not suing Linux.

        Right. ;-)
        kozmcrae
      • Maybe....

        It has something to do with the EU bringing pressure on MS every step of the way. So MS says we will take a lawsuit to a european company and who better than TomTom, a competitor in the auto market that does pretty well in the U.S. Just a hunch, but who knows.
        OhTheHumanity
      • ahh! grasshopper...

        the suit against TomTom was launched [b]because[/b] they used Linux as a platform for TOM2 and Microshaft is claiming 235 patent infringements against Linux. the Linux community has clear standing in this case.

        the NASA Mars Rover is also powered by Linux. i have it on good authority that micro-shaft is going to mount a manned micro-mission to mars, and confiscate the offending modules for unpaid Linux royalties.

        every one is free to adopt and use the Linux core (kernel), private and commercial likewise.

        what you develop on the Linux platform is yours. you cannot, however, modify the kernel in any way, shape or form, distribute those changes, and then profit.

        TomTom is using a virgin, generic kernel. Tiny TomTom triumphs tree.




        pppaulll
        • If you are an advocate do not perpetuate missconceptions

          Hey, I appreciate that you have an argument pro-linux. We are in the same camp.

          That's good but please do not perpetuate the same misconceptions that are used by Linux detractors to attack linux.

          > you cannot, however, modify the kernel
          > in any way, shape or form, distribute
          > those changes, and then profit.

          You can modify the kernel, you can distribute those changes, and you can profit from it.

          What you cannot do is prevent other people from taking your modifications and:
          0: Use them however they want
          1: Learn from your modifications (look at the source code)
          2: Pass them around
          3: Modify them to improve them or suite their needs

          http://www.fsf.org/licensing/essays/free-sw.html

          Anyone can profit from Free and open source.
          rarsa
          • That's kinda ironic isn't it?

            You can sell your software but still, you need to give away the source code for free and others can compile, modify and even resell it.

            Is that right?
            Dealing
          • Selling Linux software

            [i]You can sell your software but still, you need to give away the source code for free and others can compile, modify and even resell it.

            Is that right? [/i]

            No, that is not right. Your software can link libraries under the LPGL and you do not have to resubmit source unless your software is a modification of prior source released under a GPL.

            If you modify or extend (not including linking an LPGL library) anything under a GPL, you cannot distribute that without source. This does not apply to your original standalone code modules.
            RickGraham
        • More lies... so easy to dispell.

          There were 5 Mars Rovers. The first two Russian rovers both failed (early 1970's). The following three were all powered by operating systems OTHER than Linux. The first one was launched in 1996. In 1996, Linux was not used by any government entity. Period. It would not have passed even the first level of testing at the time. All three rovers, namely: Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity, ran a proprietary operating system called VxWorks by Windriver systems. The VxWorks OS is designed for embedded systems, unlike Linux which is designed for networked servers and desktop systems.

          pppaulll not only doesn't know much about the rovers, but apparently he (I assume) doesn't know much about the GPL either. You can, and many have, in fact, modified the kernel and profiteered from the modifications. The kernel is not protected by commercial copyrights, nor are any other portions of the distributions. It is not "owned" by any one entity to enforce those rights (and I don't think they ever have..?). That is why there are so many different distributions from different vendors (and even computer clubs) all over the planet (last count was 200+, probably a lot more by now).

          Just embedding other people's work in your own doesn't somehow "wash" the patent off of said work. If you steal and then give it away for free it's still theft, and you are still liable. TomTom is just as guilty (perhaps even more so if they are using a special washed down version of Linux) as if they had written the code themselves. That's the edge of the GPL sword. Yes you can look at all the code, but if you choose to run proprietary code anyway, YOU (not the original software writer) become liable in legal actions.

          It's amazing what wealth of useful information one can obtain just by keeping the "Linux Zealot" filter turned on when doing searches for information. pppaulll may want to turn that on now.
          rock06r
          • Just where do you get this "commercial copyrights" crap?

            Adding to words to change the definition is the same crap that Microsoft uses to pedal their FUD.

            The GPL is indeed covered by Copyright. Anyone of average or above intelligence need do is read it to understand. Trouble is, MOST people don't read "license" agreements, including Microsoft's controversial quasi-legal EULA. They take the word of FUDSTERS to interpret them.

            http://74.125.95.132/custom?q=cache:CpTQNXtvqREJ:cybersource.com.au/cyber/about/comparing_the_gpl_to_eula.pdf+comparison+of+GPL+and+EULA+%3F&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=pub-5386907765195439

            Introduction
            This document has been written in an attempt to review and contrast the samples of licenses made
            available by Microsoft and the Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) community. As these two have
            now become the most prominent purveyors of platforms and software application technology in the
            computer industry worldwide, we feel it would be instructive for business and organisational users to
            have a plain-language analysis of these key components of the software they use. We will also
            attempt a very simple quantitative analysis of what portions of both licenses devote to giving users
            rights, taking away user rights, and limiting the extent to which users can make legal claims or sue
            the purveyors of the software from both camps.

            While much of what we will cover may be known to some readers, we believe that there is
            widespread ignorance of both the EULA and the GPL. We will thus make every effort to provide a clear, simplified analysis of both, to assist in the better understanding of these licenses which are very important to all users of computers.

            Copying of this Document
            The authors give explicit permission for you to copy and reproduce this document in whatever
            manner, in verbatim (exact) form.
            Ole Man
          • Use of Linux in space probes

            While you are correct VXWorks was used in Spirit and Opportunity and not Linux (although the parent company, Wind River, is now one of the largest vendors of embedded Linux) the OS is definitely used by NASA and other governments in space probes.

            Linux has been used on a number of scientific experiments in instrumentation packages on the Space Shuttle. Linux was also used on the Beagle 2 mars probe as part or the European Mars Express program although the mission was unsuccessful.

            The most notable use of Linux on a space probe has been on the Mars Phoenix Lander, which uses a CPU and control board designed by IBM. The craft successfully landed in May of 2008.

            jperlow
      • re: Where did you get your law degree?

        [i]First and foremost, Microsoft is not suing Linux. They are suing TomTom. TomToms are not free! Your free OS has nothing to do with it! [/i]

        Microsoft is suing TomTom because TomTom refused to violate the GPL in a back room deal, as others have. So in effect, Microsoft is coercing companies into violating licence agreements. The licence agreement that is being violated is the GPL. The GPL protects the free and open use of GNU/Linux by requiring that it be distributed for free, which it is not if Microsoft is requiring a license for said distribution.

        This is a direct violation of the license for the Linux kernel.

        So, where did you get your law degree?
        RickGraham
    • We can't read your lips

      as they're quivering so much.

      Wow, you really [i]are[/i] scared....
      AllKnowingAllSeeing
  • RE: Microsoft: Litigate on FAT, and you'll be the next Unisys

    Presumably, Microsoft has figured this out and they are just testing the waters. The harm to MS if FAT32 does go away would be minimal anyway. So, who cares?
    M Wagner
    • Really an indication of the patent value at MS

      All they can use is these poor quality patents against competitors.

      From article:
      "If this litigious behavior from Microsoft continues, I don?t see why
      consumer electronics manufacturers which use embedded Linux
      couldn?t just go and standardize their own filesystem-equivalent
      version of PNG."

      Better flash file systems exist in the linux kernel today. FAT is used
      for windows interoperability, as linux file system drivers aren't
      included in windows.

      I hope TomTom accepts the offer from the open source community to
      help fight the patents concerning the kernel and expose MS's poor
      quality patent portfolio. We might also get the details of sealed cross
      licensing arrangements out in the open.
      Richard Flude
      • Sure, like you know anything of their patent portfolio

        It sounds like some open source companies talk the talk, but ignore or vilolate the GPL at their pleasure.

        Good way to start a movement...
        AllKnowingAllSeeing
        • .

          .
          n0neXn0ne
        • RE: Sure, like you know anything...

          <font color=#808080><em>"Good way to start a <strong>movement</strong>..."</em></font>

          Is this "<em>movement</em>" just getting started?

          ^o^
          <br>
          n0neXn0ne
        • The patents in question are publicly available

          "It sounds like some open source companies talk the talk, but ignore
          or vilolate the GPL at their pleasure."

          Violators should be exposed, like by fighting to get disclosure in this
          case.

          "Good way to start a movement..."

          Open source continues to grow in many markets (massively in
          embedded). Time to look at the latest MS share price:

          Closes at new low USD 15.27.
          (MS last traded at this price 17-Apr-1997)
          Richard Flude