Microsoft patent suit a threat to Linux??

According to this article on Ars Technica, Microsoft has filed a patent suit against Tom Tom NV, a Dutch company, and its U.S. subsidiary, Tom Tom, Inc:

Microsoft has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against TomTom alleging that the device maker’s products, including some that are Linux-based, infringe on patents related to Microsoft’s FAT32 filesystem. This marks the first time that Microsoft has enforced its FAT patents against the Linux platform, a move that some free software advocates have long feared could be disastrous.

The so called FAT patents have a history.

They were vigorously challenged by FOSS advocates but were finally upheld in court in 2006.  At the time, Eben Moglen, chief attorney for the Free Software Foundation, labeled the court’s decision as a “Sword of Damacles” hanging over the FOSS community:

[Moglen] said if Microsoft was successful in licensing the patents, it could add “millions of dollars annually to consumers’ expenses for digital photo storage, and (raise) the cost of digital cameras throughout the world.”  The patent decision could represent a proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over the open source community, because Microsoft could, at least in theory, seek royalties for Linux. Microsoft has given no indication it plans to use the patents against the open source community.

However, according to this article by Andy Updegrove, Microsoft has gone to pains to suggest that this is not a broad attack against Linux, but a specific attack against Tom Tom.  Microsoft claims that it is merely defending its intellectual property and, according to its lead IT attorney, Microsoft still accepts that “We recognize that open-source software will continue to be a part of the industry.”

Still Microsoft knows that its risking its fence-mending efforts with the open source community.  Updegrove attributes this somewhat confusing (and confused?) move to an internal battle within Microsoft between the old timers and the more enlightened new guys, who tend to be much more sympathetic to the FOSS community.  Because this move will undoubtedly bring intense scrutiny to the patents themselves, which always raises the possibility that many eyes will discover bugs therein, Updegrove thinks it may do more harm in the end to Microsoft itself.

Something to watch.  It will probably take years before this gets finally resolved.

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