In course of the last decade, every once in a while Microsoft has been known to have accused Linux of infringing one of its patents or another. Despite the said multiple claims for years that elements of the open-source operating system violate its patents, Microsoft had restricted itself till 2009 to supporting legal action against Linux (for instance, the infamous alleged funneling of money by Microsoft to SCO so as to fuel the latter’s lawsuits against IBM and other Linux-user companies). Simultaneously with such actions, Microsoft has not restricted either its alliances with the said companies, including its partnerships with Novell and Red Hat.
Matters had come to a head, however, when Microsoft filed a suit against the GPS navigation device vendor TomTom International BV in the U.S. District Court in Seattle in February, 2009, alleging that the in-car navigation company’s devices violate eight of its patents — including three that relate to TomTom’s implementation of the Linux kernel. Following is the link wherein the text of the complaint can be found:
Five of the alleged patent violations related to proprietary software, relating to in-car navigation technologies, while the other three involved file-management techniques, with Microsoft virtuously maintaining all along that open-source software was not the intended focal point of the action. Despite the case having taken an even more interesting turn when TomTom countersued Microsoft and joined the Open Invention Network (OIN), an open-source patent protection group, matters came to rather an abrupt end on March 30, 2009 when the parties surprisingly agreed for a mutual settlement. In return for an undisclosed licensing fee, TomTom has been given leave to use Microsoft’s patents.
The matter becomes murkier, however, when one pays attention to a statement from Peter Spours, TomTom’s director of IP Strategy and Transactions, who said that the said settlement agreement has been drafted in a way that ensures TomTom’s full compliance with its obligations under the General Public License v2, and thus reaffirms its commitment to the open-source community. No explanation was forthcoming, however, as to how exactly can TomTom both use the rights granted under the patent and conform to the GPLv2! As per the claim advanced by the companies, the agreement includes patent coverage for Microsoft’s three file management systems patents provided in a manner that is fully compliant with TomTom’s obligations under the GPLv2. At the same time, TomTom will remove, within 2 years from its products, the functionality related to two file management system patents (the ‘FAT LFN patents’) that enables efficient naming, organizing, storing and accessing of file data. During the said period, the agreement provides for coverage directly to TomTom’s end customers under the said patents. This may lead to TomTom technically using the Microsoft FAT LFN (File Allocation Table/Long File Name) patents for the next two years, but it won’t be actually using the features of those patents, which may imply that TomTom will be replacing the long file name support provided by these patents with a different technology that does not belong to Microsoft.
However, the settlement is far from successful in calming down the much-agitated open-source legal community, with the legal issues involved being still undecided. In effect, this settlement ends one phase of the community’s response to Microsoft patent aggression and begins another.It may be interesting to note that a continuing litigation will have subjected Microsoft’s patent claims to a rigorous ‘prior art’ search to which the company may have been unwilling. If that’s the raison d’etre of this settlement, then Microsoft still has many battles to resolve, particularly with OIN having taken the first step towards invalidating Microsoft’s patents that were asserted against TomTom with regard to its implementation of the Linux kernel. The said patents have been posted by OIN on its patent defenders website in order to search for relevant prior art that can invalidate Microsoft’s patents. If instances of prior art can be unearthed, then the same will undoubtedly be used to defend any future infringement actions of Microsoft against the Linux community.