Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Group of Microsoft Rivals Nears Patent Deal in Bid to Protect Linux

Microsoft Corp. has suggested in recent years that companies using the Linux computer-operating system might be violating Microsoft patents. Now, in an effort to avert any legal threat that might discourage the adoption of Linux, a group of Microsoft rivals is about to acquire a set of patents formerly owned by the software giant.

Linux is a free open-source operating system that has gained ground against Microsoft's Windows software among business users, especially in servers, the big back-office computers inside companies. Linux's fans say the free software is more secure than Windows and, because its blueprint is open to users, can be more easily customized.

The group, which includes major corporate supporters of such open-source software -- including International Business Machines Corp., Red Hat Inc. and Sony Corp. -- said it is nearing an agreement to acquire 22 patents that Microsoft sold to another organization earlier this year. Though the issue hasn't been tested in court, the patents may relate to Linux.

The group, the Open Invention Network, argues that its acquisition will protect users of Linux software from expensive lawsuits that could result if the patents fell into the hands of "patent trolls," groups that don't typically make products and exist primarily to earn money from lawsuits and settlements in patent cases.

The group said it is close to signing a deal to acquire the patents from Allied Security Trust. AST buys patents to protect its members from patent litigation, provides them with licenses to the technology, and then resells the patents on the open market. OIN and AST, whose members include Verizon Communications Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., could announce an agreement as early as this week.

AST won control of the patents in a private auction held by Microsoft. OIN and AST said their cooperation ensures that the Microsoft patents won't end up with patent trolls, leaving some big boosters of Linux potentially exposed. "We have averted a scenario where these patents can be used for negative purposes," said Keith Bergelt, chief executive officer of OIN, which holds on to its patents and broadly licenses them.

Financial terms of the deals aren't being disclosed.

Mr. Bergelt said Microsoft presented the patents to potential bidders in its auction as relating to Linux. A Microsoft executive declined to say how the company described the patents to bidders.

Microsoft's sale of the patents is a new twist in its approach to Linux. Microsoft executives have previously said that the company holds more than 200 patents, out of the company's total portfolio of more than 50,000 patents, that they believe are violated by Linux software. In recent years, Microsoft has entered into patent-licensing pacts with dozens of companies that distribute or use open-source software in their products.

Earlier this year, Microsoft went a step further and filed a lawsuit in federal court in Seattle against the Dutch GPS device maker TomTom NV for allegedly violating Microsoft patents related to Linux, which were used in TomTom navigation products.

That suit, Microsoft's first Linux-related action and its first-ever alleging infringement of a software patent -- caused a stir among open-source advocates who feared Microsoft might be mounting a major legal offensive against Linux users. Microsoft and TomTom subsequently settled the suit for undisclosed terms.

Dave Kaefer, general manager for intellectual-property licensing at Microsoft, disputed allegations by some open-source advocates that the company intended to disrupt the market for Linux products with the sale of the patents, arguing that it wouldn't have sold the patents to AST, a firm whose members also include Linux boosters, if its goal had been disruption.

Mr. Kaefer said the patents, acquired from Silicon Graphics, were sold because they weren't strategic to the company. "They weren't important to our business going forward," he said.

Source:
By NICK WINGFIELD
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125236988735891147.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
[ accessed on 08th Sep, 2009 ] by K.W.Roshan Herath

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