TomTom - The drums of a patent war with Microsoft?

Microsoft's IP claim against TomTom could just be the first salvo in an open source patent war.

Indeed, one wonders why the FAT patents were included except to stir up a bit of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD), and to stoke the flames around the widely held myth that Linux is "surrounded by legal uncertainties," although Linux is no more or less prone to legal uncertainties than any other software. The problem is not the software or the license, but the legal framework within which the software industry operates.

Outbreak of war

So does Microsoft see the TomTom case as the opening skirmish of a patent war on Linux? Perhaps so, but the consensus seems to be that Microsoft has been playing it nicely with "open source" during the last year or two, and has too much to lose from the meltdown that would ensue from a direct attack on Linux.

Too many vendors have too many vested interests, and IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems and SGI own many more patents in the world of operating system technologies than Microsoft can shake a stick at.

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As a statement of intent, in January 2005 IBM and Sun Microsystems contributed over 2,000 patents to the free software community.

In August 2005, the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) announced the formation of a Patent Commons repository, and in November of the same year IBM, Novell, Philips, Red Hat, and Sony announced the formation of the Open Invention Network (OIN), "a company that has and will acquire patents and offer them royalty-free to promote Linux and spur innovation globally."

The company asserts that "patents owned by the Open Invention Network will be available on a royalty-free basis to any company, institution or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against the Linux operating system or certain Linux-related applications."

In the unlikely event that Microsoft does have usable patents that it really believes are infringed by Linux, it has to be equally confident that its software doesn't infringe the operating system patents owned by the Patent Commons and Open Invention Network, and those owned independently by the likes of HP, IBM, Sun Microsystems and SGI.

At the same time Microsoft would have to beware of the effects of competition law in both Europe and America.

All kinds of alliances might come into play, the battlefields could be far flung, and there would be no assurances that Microsoft would end the war a winner.

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