Open Source Group Challenges Microsoft Patents

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The Open Invention Network, an industry organization that protects Linux by acquiring and licensing open-source patents, is taking Microsoft to task over three patents related to its now-settled lawsuit against in car GPS device maker TomTom.

Microsoft sued TomTom in February for allegedly infringing on eight of its patents, three of which pertained to TomTom's implementation of the Linux kernel. At the time, Microsoft officials said the suit wasn't the start of a patent enforcement campaign against Linux, but didn't rule out further lawsuits.

OIN this week posted details on the three patents -- U.S. patents 5579517, 5758352 and 6256642 -- to a section of its Linux Defenders website in an attempt to get community members searching for prior art that could prevent Microsoft from wielding them in future lawsuits.

Microsoft has been known to get defendants to sign non-disclosure agreements and then coerce them into settlements. Since Microsoft refuses to offer specifics on which of its patents Linux specifically violates, industry experts have speculated that the software giant's claims might not hold up in court.

TomTom ended up paying Microsoft an unspecified amount for coverage related to the patents. As has been the case with past Microsoft lawsuit targets, TomTom decided to pay up rather than fight a lengthly legal battle.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has a different view of what transpired. Microsoft says it has only used legal means to enforce its patents on two other occasions: In an August 2006 suit against Belkin, and in a July 2008 suit against Taiwan-based Primax Electronics.

The patent cross licensing agreements Microsoft has signed with Samsung, LG Electronics, Fuji Xerox, Brother, and Kyocera Mita resulted from "amicable business negotiations" and weren't a result of litigation or the threat of litigation, a Microsoft spokesperson said in an email.

Despite Microsoft's claims, the open source community has mobilized around the TomTom case with renewed resolve. Rob Tiller, vice president and assistant general counsel for intellectual property at Red Hat, says the time has come for the open source community to start fighting back against Microsoft's long running strategy of using fear, uncertainty, and doubt to strong-arm companies.

"There's a lot of frustration in the open source community about vague allegations of patents," said Tiller. "Now the community is finding a new way to articulate its response to these challenges."

This article updated at 11:30 PT to clarify Microsoft's stance and patent enforcement history

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