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SFLC: Step Back and Re-think How Friendly Microsoft is to Free/Open Source Software (Updated)

“If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today."

--Bill Gates



IN LIGHT OF the latest assault on TomTom (and Linux), Bradley Kuhn, who a few weeks ago commented on Microsoft's "open source" posturing in [1, 2], has made the following statement:

Bradley Kuhn, Software Freedom Law Center policy analyst, told The Reg Wednesday evening: "It's a good moment for people to take a step back and re-think how friendly Microsoft is to open source."


This comes amid Microsoft's attempt to pull an embargo against TomTom, having alleged that it had violated patents by using Linux and not paying Microsoft for the 'right'. They want to essentially use financial strangulation against those who received no 'permission' from Microsoft to distribute Linux.

Gutierrez has a somewhat troubling view on patents, where he believes that all tech companies should effectively be paying pretty much everyone else patent licensing fees before they can build any products. Rather than seeing that as a problem -- he thinks it represents a good thing. It's difficult to see what the benefit is in all that wasted money changing hands... other than it's probably what pays his salary. Not surprisingly, Microsoft is using the infamous ITC loophole to get two shots at forcing TomTom to pay up -- meaning that it's both sued the company in court, and gone to the ITC to have it try to block the import of TomTom products.


This is not the first time that Microsoft exploits such a legal maneuver. It's truly an ugly routine.

It is not the first offensive lawsuit using patents from Microsoft but probably the first that explicitly involves Linux. Prior to that there was the Primax case [1, 2, 3, 4], which was all to do with computer mice. The Register has just pointed this out as well.

In the most recent case, Microsoft settled with Taiwanese mouse-maker Primax after accusing it of violating its tilt-wheel technologies.


One is able to gain insight into what was happening behind the scenes prior to this legal action. The first stage makes one wonder if companies like Brother were pressured into a patent deal with Microsoft. According to IDG:

Microsoft engaged in discussions with TomTom to license the technologies, but an agreement could not be reached, said Horacio Gutierrez, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel at Microsoft.


Here is why it's important to have TomTom fight this battle and never settle.

Asked if this TomTom case is the start of a broader legal campaign over those alleged violations, Gutierrez said no.


It would set a bad precedence had TomTom decided to settle, which is what Sam Varghese imagines they will strive for.

TomTom is a Dutch company with a much bigger presence in Europe than in North America. It has a presence in Asia, Africa and Australia as well and sells its products in 30 countries and in 20 languages. It is a market leader in portable navigation devices.

However, people should not get overly excited and have visions of a trial like the SCO case; it is likely that TomTom was calling Microsoft's bluff all this time and may now settle.


"Microsoft products need to be banned in the EU," said one reader, but patents might be needed to achieve that. Where is OIN? It is its goal to defend Linux in such circumstances. The problem is that TomTom was hit by a mixture of many patents (some not related to Linux), so it might choose to settle the whole bundle. To TomTom, this is not a Linux-only issue and given that TomTom does not even support GNU/Linux desktops, there is room for doubt.

"Microsoft is seeming to get a death wish," argues another person. Like SCO, Microsoft might have no effective tricks left, so it's hoping to take other people's revenue, including that of Linux. This also makes its competition more expensive.

As pointed out yesterday, Microsoft is suffering badly and it is in debt territories by now. In fact, it's stock is doing no better. From yesterday:

Microsoft shares hit 11-year low



[...]

Microsoft's failure to announce more cost cuts sent its shares to an 11-year low on Tuesday


Even the Microsoft-friendly press was unable to spin this positively.

Shares of Microsoft sank 58 cents, or 3.4 percent, to $16.63 in midday trading amid a broader market sell-off.


Microsoft is approaching debt or is already in it. The economy makes it worse for them (people favour sub-notebooks where Windows is almost free in the gratis sense), but their approach against TomTom is tactless. They are suing many people who are also Microsoft customers. They are using intellectual monopolies (as applied to software) against a European company where software patents are not valid. What's more, TomTom is no fan of patents [1, 2, 3, 4]. For TomTom, this whole story might actually bring publicity and sympathy. If they fight Microsoft, they'll become heroes in the minds of many.

"[The] world is over for Microsoft," argues another person, adding that it's "Funny the attack on Linux at TomTim does not contain the 200+ they claim are on the Linux kernel." This confirms that Microsoft realises it can't compete without sabotaging others. It also puts in doubt those figures (# of patents) which Microsoft never defended.

“It also puts in doubt those figures (# of patents) which Microsoft never defended.”Further, says reader: "Now it could get bad for Microsoft as well, particularly if the FAT patents get broken." They might be trying to scare those who are considering platforms like Android.

One person argues that "Common Name Space for Long and Short Filenames" is an area where prior art is futile and another person asks, "don't all the mobiles that use flash-storage use FAT somehow?" FAT would indeed affect other Linux-powered gadgets, so it's important to fight this battle to the end. "Monopoly abuse" can be used as a defense because FAT patents came up in the European courts in such a context before.

OIN is supposed to hop in and defend Linux, potentially by counter-suing. Failing to do so is failing to stand up to the promises. But then there's Microsoft's own patent troll, Nathan Myhrvold, who serves 'their' extortionate OIN equivalent. Battles of patent 'umbrellas' ahead?

TomTom should challenge this one along with other affected parties and someone should encourage them not to settle. One reader argues that the "Big thing [is that] there are lot more effected parties. Microsoft could have just opened a Pandora's box. [The] SCO case went south when more interested parties came out the woodwork -- [parties] that SCO didn't know what to do with."

"TomTom could try embargoing Microsoft as well," suggests another reader. He argues that "since most of there development is done overseas and is imported Microsoft is playing a really risky game of chicken.

"Delay on code imports would stuff Microsoft Windows 7 release."

Arguing that "the cats out of the bag," one reader suggests that this is a good reason to drop patent traps like Mono. Microsoft is a patent aggressor now and it expressed plans/intent to plant Mono in devices just like TomTom.

Microsoft is aiming at a weak target, according to a person who writes that:

In the beginning of 2008 TomTom traded at 70 euro per stock on the Dutch stockmarket. Now they are worth 3 euro per stock. Microsoft is hitting hard on a company that is already in the drain. How can TomTom afford to defend themselves after a disaster year like 2008 was for them? Microsoft has got money for sure, and with this economy everyone will be scared to step up against Microsoft. They are using the economic climate to bully the entire industry (remember TomTom is just one company, they used blackmail to extract license fee’s from many companies before this).

Soon MS will monopolize the patent trolling business. I hope people will react to this and create a new better faster light-weight FS sort of like what happened with the GIF -> PNG transition (and which is happening right now with the OGG revolution driven by Wikipedia and Mozilla).


To conclude in the words of a reader, "TomTom should never get into cross-license here, that is clearly Microsoft's number-one option... mak[ing] it even more so look [like] anyone embedding Linux needs that [...] cross-license." Some further discussion appears in LWN for those who are interested.

“I was going to spend my money on upgrading to Windows 7 when it is released, but after reading this, I am disgusted at Microsoft's apparent greed..."

--Source



patent threat
Photo under the GNU Free Documentation license



Update: TomTom is fighting back.

Dutch navigations solutions company TomTom NV ( TOM2.AE) said Thursday it rejects all Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) claims that it is infringing on eight of its patents.

[...]

Earlier this week, TomTom reported a EUR989 million fourth-quarter loss, and warned that it could breach its debt covenants. The bottom line was hit by lower sales in both the U.S. and Europe, TomTom's main markets, but also by a EUR1.1 billion impairment charge related to the company's 2007 acquisition of digital map maker Tele Atlas.

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