Frantic cries have been heard from all around the FOSS community since the announcement that Microsoft has taken patent infringement action against a distributor of the Linux kernel. Tomtom, an extremely successful Dutch company which sells GPS navigation devices is being sued by Microsoft for infringing on patents it holds, some related to mobile computing, others to the FAT file system. It’s the latter that is disturbing the Linux community, as the Linux kernel implements compatibility with the FAT file system and indeed it is the Linux kernel in some of Tomtom’s devices that Microsoft is accusing of infringing its FAT patents. Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft’s senior intellectual property lawyer characterised the alleged infringements this way:
“Yes, well, three of the eight patents in this dispute read on the Linux kernel as implemented by TomTom. The other five relate to car navigation proprietary software used by TomTom.”
Words like these bring back terrible memories of Microsoft’s – and particularly Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s – past statements in this area. Back in 2004 Ballmer told the Asian Government Leaders Forum in Singapore that Linux infringed on “over 228″ software patents and that
“somebody will come and look for money owing to the rights for that intellectual property…”
Journalists seeking clarification of Ballmer’s comments at the time from Microsoft’s PR department were told that Ballmer was referring to a 2004 study by Dan Ravicher that identified 283 potential software patent infringements within Linux. Ravicher responded that Ballmer was misreporting the essence of the report, which was that any operating system would necessarily infringe the 283 patents in question (Ravicher did not list them) and that therefore Linux was in no greater danger of infringement than any other operating system. The report was commissioned and published by a firm called Open Source Risk Management, who coincidentally were just about to start selling insurance for users of Linux who feared being hit with unexpected patent fees. Ravicher is now Legal Director of the Software Freedom Law Center, a law firm that specialises in helping authors of FOSS.
Of course this was not the only piece of horse-spooking that Microsoft has engaged in over the years. In May 2007 senior Microsoft lawyers Brad Smith and Horacio Gutierrez (sound familiar?) told Fortune Magazine that Linux infringes on 235 Microsoft-owned software patents and that:
“This is not a case of some accidental, unknowing infringement… There is an overwhelming number of patents being infringed.”
Shortly after this Microsoft announced a deal with Novell that would protect customers using Novell’s SUSE Linux distribution from patent action by Microsoft – the obvious implication being that customers of all other Linux distributions must therefore be at risk (OSS Watch covered this issue and the Free Software Foundation’s reaction in our description of the GNU GPL v3 here).
So is the current climate of fear really warranted? Probably not. For a start, Gutierrez himself is at pains to say that this is not the beginning of the earth-shattering IP showdown that Linux users have been fearing for years:
I should say, Microsoft respects and appreciates the important role that open-source software plays in our industry, and we respect and appreciate the passion and the great contribution that open-source developers make in our industry. That appreciation and respect is not inconsistent with our respect for intellectual-property rights. Partnership with all technology companies, including those that adopt a mixed-source model, must be built on mutual respect for IP rights — rights that we all rely on for driving innovation and opportunity.Now, this case is against TomTom, and it involves infringement of Microsoft patents by TomTom devices. Each case is different, and this one is specifically about the use of software by TomTom in its devices.
(from here.) In the past it has clearly been a strategic aim of Microsoft’s to cast doubt on the legality of Linux. The Microsoft quotes mentioned above were without doubt intended to make potential Linux users think twice about where they should spend their money. With the Tomtom case – in contrast – Microsoft seems to be at pains to go further than it needs to in calming Linux users about the potential for broad litigation against their chosen operating system. Just note the contrast between the Gutierrez of 2007′s Fortune article and the Gutierrez of 2009′s Tomtom-related interview. There seems to be a genuine movement towards playing down the implied threats of the past.
Why has this happened? It’s almost impossible for an outsider to say.It is clear that Microsoft’s former strategy of implying that Linux was about to disappear under storm of patent infringement suits did not significantly affect Linux uptake. The Linux community adapted through initiatives like the Open Invention Network - a patent-holding organisation supported by Sony, Novell, Red Hat, IBM, NEC and Philips that licenses its IP at no cost to anyone who agrees not to assert their own patent rights against Linux. Of course, if you choose to assert your rights against Linux, the OIN will closely examine your products to make sure that none of their patents are embodied in them. In practice it’s this kind of ‘sue-me-and-i’ll-sue-you’ standoffs that prevent all-out patent war in the IT sector, and the number of patent-holding corporations with a stake in Linux now makes it potentially as risky to sue as any other single large technology player – maybe riskier given the added liability of blogosphere backlash and community hatred for any moves against FOSS.
When OSS Watch spoke to OIN’s then-CEO Jerry Rosenthal in 2007 he believed that they would probably never have to actually sue a big player like Microsoft. So while the Microsoft-Tomtom case probably does not herald the the final Microsoft campaign against FOSS, it will be interesting to see whether OIN sees it as sufficient reason to look into enforcing their own patents against Microsoft. Tomtom must be hoping that they do.