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Has Microsoft's Patent War Against Linux Begun? 644

Posted by timothy
from the begun-this-clone-war-has dept.
Glyn Moody writes "Microsoft has filed a suit against TomTom, '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.' What's interesting is that the intellectual property lawyer behind the move, Horacio Gutierrez, has just been promoted to the rank of corporate vice president at Microsoft. Is this his way of announcing that he intends going on the attack against Linux?"
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Has Microsoft's Patent War Against Linux Begun?

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  • Patenting mistakes (Score:5, Informative)

    by alain94040 (785132) * on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:30PM (#26989845) Homepage

    3 patents relate to car navigation systems and I can't really tell who's right...

    But patent 5579517 [google.com] is very simple for all to understand: it's the infamous way of Windows 95 to offer long file names (32 characters) over DOS, which only allowed 8-character names.

    So Microsoft patented the way to store a cross-reference between the nice, readable filename, and the ugly, DOS name.

    Does Linux do that? Sure, there might be a FAT driver somewhere... But I hope TomTom doesn't use FAT. If so, Microsoft is abusing the patent process.

    And am I the only one to see irony in the fact that Microsoft patented a software defect?

    • by Computershack (1143409) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:33PM (#26989887)
      Tomtom does indeed use FAT on the memory cards the maps are stored on.
      • FAT32 patents (Score:5, Insightful)

        by argent (18001) <peter.slashdot@2006@taronga@com> on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:39PM (#26990003) Homepage Journal

        Microsoft has patented a bunch of stuff related to FAT32 and has aggressively licensed FAT32. They would have pursued this regardless of the OS underneath the TomTom software.

        • Re:FAT32 patents (Score:5, Interesting)

          by downix (84795) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:48PM (#26990147) Homepage

          And where are the lawsuits against Digital Cameras, USB Flash Drives, portable HDD's, the iPod....

          • Re:FAT32 patents (Score:5, Interesting)

            by palegray.net (1195047) <philip.paradisNO@SPAMpalegray.net> on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:52PM (#26990213) Homepage Journal
            They're on the way, probably. This is most likely a shot across the bow.
          • Re:FAT32 patents (Score:5, Informative)

            by Fastolfe (1470) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @08:06PM (#26990427)

            USB flash drives are normally implemented as a USB disk, not a FAT32 "device", so the FAT32 implementation (and patent concerns) are pushed off to the host that reads/writes to the disk. Digital cameras and iPods could be considered hosts in that sense, and they probably already have FAT32 licensed.

          • by saleenS281 (859657) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @08:09PM (#26990457) Homepage
            You're assuming none of those people have paid for a fat32 license. Microsoft approached the entire CFA about licensing fat32 in 2006.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by RzUpAnmsCwrds (262647)

            UFDs and portable HDDs don't care what FS you put on them; they're just block devices and don't understand anything FS-level.

            To my knowledge the iPhone/iPod no longer uses FAT32.

            You might have a point with digital cameras.

            • Re:FAT32 patents (Score:5, Interesting)

              by lorenlal (164133) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @09:41PM (#26991597)

              This sort of thing boggles my mind. You, as a company, make a lot of lovely commercials talking about how easy your OS is to copy pictures, and do all sorts of cool things. You employ a kid to pimp your OS. Everything is clouds and rainbows.

              In the past, you made it so your OS *only* supports file systems that you hold patents for. It's sketchy, but that's what you did. It even seems convenient to the end user cause they don't need to decide what format to do. Camera and device makers are faced with a choice to either:
              A) Use your file system in the storage to make it easy to copy (like in the commercials you make later).
              B) Force the makers to create an interface and make the copy process a pain for the end user.

              So, most makers choose A since the standard's been published and things seem pretty calm and clear. Happiness abounds, and since the standard is readily available almost everyone else has employed usage of said OS. It's lightweight, does a simple job quite well. Device makers make plenty of products that directly support and utilize your FS and it seems to add value to your OS.

              Then, you decide it's time to enforce the patent. Against certain competitors, or you start charging licensing fees. Device makers and the competition has to suffer since your OS dominates the market and there's no way to go back and stop using the FS since that requires recalling your entire product portfolio.

              I guess the point I'm trying to make is: WHY DO THIS? Greed.. At least that's a simple answer.

              More importantly though, does this qualify as either abusive or anti-competitive? I certainly think so. IANAL, but even if it's neither the former, it's certainly un-ethical. It's certainly a great way to get more people to hate you. It's only a matter of time before someone with enough resources hates you enough to pull you into court or a governmental session and start killing you in the public eye and in the bottom line.

            • Re:FAT32 patents (Score:5, Informative)

              by nabsltd (1313397) on Thursday February 26, 2009 @12:08AM (#26993331)

              To my knowledge the iPhone/iPod no longer uses FAT32.

              I can't say anything about iPhones, but iPods can be plugged in to any Windows XP/Vista computer and be accessed as a plain old USB drive. In order for that to happen, they need to use FAT (of some variety), HPFS, or NTFS. If they are larger than 2GB, they must use FAT32, and to support long filenames, they have to use the VFAT variant.

              Which means, they have to have a file system that is patented by Microsoft.

              You can format an iPod using HFS+ on a Mac, but then it won't work with Windows until you re-format it.

    • by WindBourne (631190) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:40PM (#26990021) Journal
      is to get companies to start using a different FS on memory cards. In particular, it might be useful to pick one of the OSS FS and see it dominate the industry. All it would take is several large companies to decide to change NOW, and the rest would follow.
      • by dpilot (134227) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:47PM (#26990133) Homepage Journal

        Look at it this way...

        Is your data SAFE in a Microsoft format?
        What other patents do they have that my not have been asserted in this case?
        Is your company future safe with anything other than pure, fully accepted and vetted open source I.P.?
        How about your documents, and your ability to manipulate them at will, without encumbrance or fees?

        Microsoft isn't the only company that can play the fear game.

      • That would avoid the two "vfat" patents, but the third patent is 6256642. This could apply to Linux's general strategy for managing Flash memory, no matter which filesystem is used.
        http://www.everypatent.com/comp/pat6256642.html [everypatent.com]

        I wonder if we will end up with Linux distributions with "vfat" support disabled..

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        The only issue there is getting it to be supported on Windows. Grandma wants to plug her memory card/flash drive into any computer and have it "just work". If M$ doesn't give in and support the OSS FS, it'll be a tough battle.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Not a problem. Windows uses an Installable File System (IFS) architecture. All that has to happen is that the filesystem driver gets installed with the hardware driver. This can be entirely transparent to the end-user.

        • by Cajun Hell (725246) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @08:13PM (#26990517) Homepage Journal

          The only issue there is getting it to be supported on Windows. Grandma wants to plug her memory card/flash drive into any computer and have it "just work".

          If every OS except Windows is able to

          1. use a modern filesystem for flash and have it "just work"
          2. connect to the internet and not become virus-infected unless the user is an expert

          then Windows isn't the right OS for Grandma.

          I know Windows still has major market penetration in many segments of society, but Grandmas just aren't where it should be. Get 'er a Mac. Or if you'll install it for her, get her Linux.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by saleenS281 (859657)
        That sounds like a GREAT way to lose all market share overnight. "My old camera can load pictures to my laptop just fine, this new one doesn't work. I'm going to return it!".

        If you honestly think MS is going to adopt whatever open source filesystem they choose, you're nuts.
      • by Miamicanes (730264) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @09:02PM (#26991161)

        > is to get companies to start using a different FS on memory cards

        It's not going to happen, and here's why:

        * The royalties are capped. Beyond a certain point, it costs SanDisk, Minolta, and the others nothing in additional royalties for cards produced during a given year.

        * As a practical matter, Microsoft can only force you to pay royalties if you sell the card preformatted. Leave it up to the end user to format the drive himself, and Microsoft can't make you pay them a cent. Technically, the end user would be responsible for paying the royalties himself if he formats the card with FAT32, but as a practical matter Microsoft isn't going to come knocking on his door.

        Thus, it's self-limiting for large users, and there's a de-facto escape hatch for small users. The limit is high enough to make Microsoft lots of money, but low enough to not be worth the development and support costs of any alternate filesystem for the large users.

        In any case, I'll be shocked if Microsoft ever launches into an all-out assault on Linux. Frankly, Microsoft BENEFITS from having a small & noisy group of people loudly insisting there are alternatives to Windows. It lets them point and say, "See, we aren't REALLY a monopoly!

      • I have been wondering what filesystem I should use for a flash card. Especially if I need compatibility. FAT doesn't quite fit the bill, especially if MS starts suing people over it. UDF [diskinternals.com] seems to be the answer. (Wikipedia page [wikipedia.org])

        It already has native drivers in most, if not all operating systems, MS windows (apparently XP doesn't have write support), Macs, Linux and even FreeBSD (as I understand). Frome what I understand, it is intended to reduce the number of writes (intended for rewritable CDs/DVDs), so i

      • As I read through all this, I have to think that you are the same management type that have left companies beholden to MS.
        1. MS ppl are USE to installing drivers. Get a new toy, and you install a driver. Show me any large company with a product that does NOT have a CD with it, that does not have drivers to install.
        2. Yes, some ppl will whine. Those are YOU. The very same type of ppl whining here will whine to the company. But they would find SOMETHING to whine about.
        3. Saying that MS will not support something el
    • by knarf (34928)

      I assume TomTom's devices can use SD cards, and those are by default formatted with a FAT filesystem. Of course it is ludicrous for Microsoft to now suddenly worm out of the woodwork and claim patent infringement but that is a) clear from the start and b) besides the point.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Mr2cents (323101)

      I think I remember that Microsoft wasn't going to enforce their FAT patents? I read it more than a year ago, and my wetware memory isn't perfect, but I really think they claimed it.. IIRC I even went to their site to verify.

      (I could be wrong, but I would really like to hear others with better a recollection than I have..)

  • by Steve1952 (651150) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:35PM (#26989933)
    People who live in glass houses not an issue here!
  • Actual complaint: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:40PM (#26990031)

    Skip the ads and get the PDF of the complaint:

    http://media.techflash.com/documents/tomtomComplaint.pdf [techflash.com]

    A quickie read of it still has me going "WTF!?" a lot. Seriously - they patented such things like:

    "Vehicle Computer System with Wireless Connectivity"

    "Portable Computing Device-Integrated Appliance"

    A quick look at the dates these things were granted, and most gadget geeks' memories should spark something: Most of this crap shouldn't have been patentable in the first place (wish they appended the patents to the complaint, though... it'd make things a lot easier to eyeball and evaluate in one spot).

    I'm guessing MSFT is just hoping to force a settlement, so that they can then use it as a cudgel... thing is, Microsoft is using a lot of OSS code nowadays too (IIRC in MSN/Live Messenger, Visual Studio 2008, and etc - linky here [cnet.com]).

  • by Lead Butthead (321013) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:41PM (#26990051) Journal

    But its growth can be stunned. The lawsuits are not designed to stop Linux; a defendant with sufficiently deep pocket can fend off the attack, EVENTUALLY. The real intend of these suits are to stun the growth of Linux through FUD.

  • by linhares (1241614) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:42PM (#26990059)
    This is to be expected, as the follow the RIAA MPAA desperation road. And a giant backlash against ms, of course.

    Netbooks are a serious threat to them, and they know it. To follow the netbooks will be larger machines with limited processing for the avg joes out there.

    On a personal note, I find it very delightful that a company that Embraced, Enhanced, Extinguished, might be brought down by a tiny, cheap machine called EEE.

  • by dave562 (969951) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:43PM (#26990073) Journal

    I know that it's always silly to try to predict the future, but here I go none the less. For the most part, all of the core computing applications have already been developed. Unless business processes change significantly, there are only so many systems that a company will ever need to deploy. There will be word processing applications, spreadsheets, databases, webpages, file servers, print servers and a slew of other devices. However the core of the network and the computing environment will remain rather static. Over the last decade, Microsoft developed a lot of core business applications in the form of Windows, Windows Server, Office and Exchange. As the room for innovation in the IT world shrinks, Microsoft will have to fall back to the patent portfolio. If their lawyers were smart, they patented every single technology that they could with the foreknowledge that sooner or later, someone else would want to develop software to do the same thing.

    I think we are going to see Microsoft leveraging their patents more and more aggressively as time goes on. They have poured untold billions of dollars in R&D. It seems to me like they need to pursue patent litigation to generate some sort of ROI on all those R&D dollars.

    • by James Youngman (3732) <jay@g[ ]org ['nu.' in gap]> on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:49PM (#26990173) Homepage

      For the most part, all of the core computing applications have already been developed.

      Record that, and come back to read it in 20 years. Or wait 10 years and ask your information agent to find it for you.

    • As the room for innovation in the IT world shrinks, Microsoft will have to fall back to the patent portfolio

      You think the room for innovation in the IT world shrinks. It doesn't shrink. If anything, there's more room for innovation than ever as more people recognize the value of software. It's just that, its a lot harder to understand where to innovate than it was before, but the rewards are there.

      Microsoft's problem isn't so much that there's no more room to innovate then, its that, its not as sure as wh

    • by Penguinisto (415985) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:57PM (#26990299) Journal

      Just one problem: They risk stepping on the toes of folks like IBM, Apple (who has more cash in the bank right now than Microsoft does), and other biggies that can make life very, very hard for MSFT.

      Also, the payouts aren't as fast or as big as you would think: Sure, a small corp could/would cave in and settle almost immediately, and enough of them would provide an ongoing income for awhile. That said, doing so would force a lot of up-and-comers to simply abandon as much of MSFT as possible, just to avoid potential conflict.

      Look at the GIF/LZH patent as an example - the whole damned thing mostly withered and died because Unisys was too desperate and stupid to realize that they could have taken a better approach. World+dog simply avoided using compressed GIFs, instead turning to other tech to get the job done.

      I can see people start to do the same things with .NET, ASP, and more, if MSFT becomes an aggressive RIAA-style extortion machine.

      To mangle a well-worn phrase: Nowadays, application developers see patent lawsuits as damage, and tries to route around them.

      (I can also see other corps banding together and assaulting MSFT just out of preventative self-defense, too... see also SCO's troubles as a model.)

      /P

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Trogre (513942)

        World+dog simply avoided using compressed GIFs, instead turning to other tech to get the job done.

        ...World+dog-Slashdot, that is :p

  • by morganew (194299) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:48PM (#26990153)

    TomTom were found to be a gpl violator [gpl-violations.org] in '04, sued Garmin in '07 and Toyota in '08 [gbpatent.com] for infringing TomTom patents, and have a very restrictive EULA [tomtom.com].

    • by ianare (1132971) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @08:10PM (#26990475)

      They don't seem any worse than any other corporation.

      Looking at the EULA, it's really only the US version that has a lot of the typical bullshit, the European versions are much saner. Can't really blame them for doing the same things all other companies operating in the US are allowed to do.

      And from the gpl-violations page (which was resolved in a friendly manner) :

      As part of the agreement, TomTom will show it's appreciation of the Free Software and technology enthusiast movement by making a significant donation to the Chaos Computer Club (http://www.ccc.de/).

      So they may not be exactly saintly, but don't seem overtly evil ... and compared to Microsoft ? Come on !!

  • Patent Abuse (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Demonantis (1340557) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:48PM (#26990155)
    A patent is supposed to protect a commercial product from being copied by the market. This is to promote people to share their ideas and collaborate while protecting the inventor. Patenting software concepts is counter intuitive to this process where no ingenuity of solving a problem is demonstrated. A lot of the patents that make it though now a days are really abusive of the protection and way to generalized to the technology they use.
  • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris@bea u . org> on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:49PM (#26990163)

    Microsoft has been totally consistent in their rants on this topic. They are all for "Open Source" so long as they get a per copy patent royalty when it gets deployed in a shipping product. Because nobody can do anything without infringing their all encompassing patent portfolio. And they are probably right. And Linux is infringing patents held by every other tech company. Normally they just cross license between each other and little money actually changes hands, it is just a gate keeping new competitors without patents of their own to cross license at a disadvantage. Which is exactly where Linux is.

    The patent system needs to be fixed. But every large company has billions invested in the current broken system AND, as noted above, depends on patents to keep new unexpected competitors from springing up.

    • by tgatliff (311583) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:56PM (#26990289)

      Microsoft will no doubt tread lightly because IBM and others will not tolerate them taking Linux head on... Hence, why they are trying to go around the edges. Their hope, I am assuming, is classic FUD...

      Meaning, in no way will Microsoft ever be able to take on Linux directly.... Doing so would force the hand of IBM to get involved because they have much at stake...

      • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris@bea u . org> on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @08:25PM (#26990665)

        > Meaning, in no way will Microsoft ever be able to take on Linux directly....

        Which they have no intention of doing, for exactly the reasons you mention. They don't have to. IBM can do what it wants with Linux, safe in the knowledge they are one of the companies with a patent portfolio. Tom Tom on the other hand....

        Which is the message they want to send. Only players are allowed to play in the big leagues. If Tom Tom wants to enter the game they must license their IP from someone with a patent portfolio. Somebody like Novell or even IBM. But thinking one can just download Linux and enter the arena without a major defender is going to be shown as too dangerous for VC money, large instituitions, etc. At which point the major potential for market disruption implied by Linux, Open Source, Free Software, etc. is gone. This is just the warning shot. If companies like ASUS and Acer don't get the message expect an example to be made of one of the netbook makers soon.

  • What I see mentioned in the MS paper looks like some Infamous US Software Patents.

    This'll probably mean TomTom will (have to) retract from the US market and leave some 300 million people to find their ways using dead tree maps.

    I use a TomTom myself and find it a great little Linux device but I'm less than impressed with the way they treat the Linux community, for example you can only update via a Windows application that doesn't even run in wine.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by AlXtreme (223728)

      I use a TomTom myself and find it a great little Linux device but I'm less than impressed with the way they treat the Linux community, for example you can only update via a Windows application that doesn't even run in wine.

      Even more as their TomTom Home Windows application was built using xulrunner (mozilla).

      Having so many Linux developers, yet not wanting to put in any effort to help Linux users. It's a shame, but not uncommon with companies using Linux for embedded devices and appliances.

  • by HockeyPuck (141947) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @07:52PM (#26990225)

    Why is the third link in the summary to a blog about the first link? Ok so the first link is the story itself then the third one which only has three statements of thought:

    It's been in the air for ages, and now it's happening:

    /*He copies in some summary sentences from the article. */

    Presumably those are the three that relate to Linux, in which case this is likely to have broader implications than just the in-car navigation market.

    Here's a nice statement of how Microsoft views all this:

    /* He then posts a small quote from the first article. */

    In other words, Microsoft "respects and appreciates" open source until it actually starts to replace Microsoft's offerings, in which case the charming smile is replaced with the shark's grimace.

    It may not be a coincidence that Gutierrez has just been promoted to the rank of corporate vice president: could this legal action be his way of announcing the direction he and Microsoft will now take in the battle against Linux?

    Is someone trying to get page hits here? What's the "direct hits to my blog" form of Slashvertisement?

  • Those patent numbers (Score:5, Informative)

    by gringer (252588) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @09:06PM (#26991207)

    From the shorter PDF:
    http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/6175789.html [patentstorm.us] — Vehicle computer system with open platform architecture

    http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/7054745.html [patentstorm.us] — Method and system for generating driving directions

    http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/6704032.html [patentstorm.us] — Methods and arrangements for interacting with controllable objects within a graphical user interface environment using various input mechanisms

    http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/7117286.html [patentstorm.us] — Portable computing device-integrated appliance

    http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/6202008.html [patentstorm.us] — Vehicle computer system with wireless internet connectivity

    http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/5579517.html [patentstorm.us] — Common name space for long and short filenames

    http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/5758352.html [patentstorm.us] — Common name space for long and short filenames

    http://www.google.com/patents?id=02YIAAAAEBAJ&dq=6,256,642 [google.com] — Method and system for file system management using a flash-erasable, programmable, read-only memory.

    Some other text seems necessary in order to type stuff and get links in.

  • UMSDOS as prior art? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fireman sam (662213) on Wednesday February 25, 2009 @11:02PM (#26992569) Homepage Journal

    Could UMSDOS (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umsdos) be seen as prior art for at long file name patent (http://www.google.com/patents?vid=USPAT5579517)?

  • by wtarreau (324106) on Thursday February 26, 2009 @01:52AM (#26994125) Homepage

    I suspect MS has tried to push WinCE on Tomtom to replace Linux, and threatened them to sue them if they refused. These days, we see windows coming on devices where we would not expect it, and it is possible that there is some back pressure from MS.

  • by VShael (62735) on Thursday February 26, 2009 @05:50AM (#26995449) Journal

    Remember back when GIF was the number one image type on the internet? And then there was a licensing issue?

    Almost killed the use of GIF as a filetype. Gave rise to the predominance of JPG and the growth of the PNG format.

    I can't remember the last time I saw a gif that wasn't animated (Which seems to the be preferred small moving animatic format. For now.)

  • idiotic patents (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jipn4 (1367823) on Thursday February 26, 2009 @12:22PM (#26999205)

    The patents in question are idiotic.

    In two patents, Microsoft basically tries to claim rights to running a general purpose OS on a computer designed for a car and having Internet access on such a machine. This is trying to patent a market niche.

    In two other patents, they are trying to claim rights to the awful long/short filenames compatibility hack in FAT file systems. One patent is trying to claim allocating space from flash erasable memory in blocks. And the last patent is related to modes in user interfaces. All of these are trying to patent what any competent software developer would come up with when faced with such a programming task.

    I hope Microsoft will be shredded to pieces in court.

  • by markana (152984) on Thursday February 26, 2009 @02:59PM (#27001729)

    Aside from the FAT issues, these are even more troubling:

    6175789 - Vehicle computer system with open platform architecture

    6202008 - Vehicle computer system with wireless internet connectivity

    There are a lot of people in the geek community who build Linux-based car computers: http://www.mp3car.com/ [mp3car.com] . These patents, at first reading, seem to lock up that entire product space. Or at least, that's how Microsoft is going to spin it...

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