The warning sound of TomTom

Microsoft's court case and trade commission claims against TomTom are perfect examples of how power perverts process

If the patents at the heart of Microsoft's action against TomTom are the best the company can do, little wonder the company has declined to identify those at the heart of its Linux threats.

The TomTom claims cover such things as a multitasking computer on which you can run programs, in a car. A wireless internet-connected computer, in a car. And how to create long file names in the MS-DOS filing system — a fix introduced in Windows 95 because MS-DOS is a direct descendent of 1974's vintage 8-bit CP/M operating system. A direct descendant? More a bastard child: MS-DOS helped itself freely to many of CP/M's design concepts, in some detail.

But those were the days when Bill Gates could say that software patents had the potential to put the industry at "a complete standstill" and with good reason. If the sort of protection Microsoft now claims for itself had been available to CP/M then, Microsoft would never have created its monopoly, nor amassed a fraction of its power.

Now it has, the rules have changed. Microsoft is perfectly happy, while proclaiming openness and interoperability, to find a company in dire financial straits and then threaten it with expensive legal action over what any self-respecting programmer would identify as a hackish kludge — something that advances the art of computer software not one bit.

Microsoft has taken an interesting path to the point where it now finds itself comfortable reducing the rest of the industry to that "complete standstill". When it first decided in 2003 that its FAT filing system should be licensed, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith told us that revenue generation wasn't the idea: "Fundamentally, that's not why we are doing this. We are doing this to work better and promote better collaboration with the industry."

We can talk all day as to whether this is an attack on Linux (Microsoft denies this while repeatedly citing the OS in its claims), an attempt to frighten others into settling without going to court to test the patents, or a cynical move, driving TomTom into the ground to facilitate a purchase. Working better and promoting better collaboration, however, is not on the menu.

The patent system is not just broken, it is poisonous. It works by fear, using the civil courts as cudgels in the hands of bullies. In the process, it despoils its main purpose: what valid, proportionate claims Microsoft may have in the rest of its case against TomTom hardly matter.

Everything in this case is a perversion of how intellectual property should be used, commercialised and shared. We salute TomTom for standing firm, and urge the rest of the industry to find and stick to a fairer, more sensible way of dealing with shared IP.