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

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."

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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.