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Patents Roundup: Reform, Case Against Linux, Microsoft Patent Trolls and More

Summary: Reform is ahead, Microsoft plays mental games against Linux, Microsoft-affiliated patent harvesters revisited and studied

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A patent reform bill ought to have been introduced as early as yesterday, spurring the beginning of change. This may have been delayed a little as we have not been able to identify any coverage, as yet.

Patent reform could be introduced in Congress as early as Tuesday (March 3), as high tech lobbying groups on both sides of the issue turn up the heat. Sources close to the issue said the new bill will pick up where similar bills that failed to pass in 2008 left off.

On one side, big electronics companies want to curb what they claims is a rise of frivolous patent infringement suits and damages, often from companies whose only business is to acquire and assert patents. On the other side, smaller companies and individual inventors say changes in the patent system would cut incentives to develop new technology.


Thought is also given to the issue of patents-encumbered standards over at WIPO, which is typically hostile towards Free software. Fortunately, the Bilski ruling reportedly helps the weakening of software patents. This could rescue standards and further trivialise interoperability.

In February 2009, the Board of Patent Appeals (BPAI) issued nine decisions that touched on Bilski and patentable subject matter under Section 101 of the Patent Act. In eight of the cases, the BPAI either affirmed an examiner's Section 101 rejection (five cases) or entered a new ground of rejection under Section 101 (three cases). In the remaining case, the BPAI remanded - asking the examiner to consider wether the claims were patentable under Section 101. All nine cases were related to software or electronics type applications.


Microsoft vs Linux



A few articles that are important have been published since we last summarised the TomTom case. One important post came from Harald Welte, who debunks Microsoft's claim that its case against TomTom does not affect any generic kernel. Welte makes other valuable remarks, for example:

The underlying strategy is very obvious: Make those patent licenses high enough to reduce the cost advantage of a Linux based OS over Windows CE and thereby demotivate companies from using Linux in the embedded world.

This has so far happened behind closed doors, but if you google you can find a couple of strange press releases of Asian companies buying into those MS patent deals for Linux.

[...]

I myself, as well as numerous other people in the Free and Open Source world are asking themselves how this legal action fits into the Microsoft-proclaimed Free Software friendly strategy. As you can see now, that was nothing but vapor.


Bruce Perens, one of the more prominent figures in his area, weighed in on this topic as well. Bruce Perens took shots at the lack of innovation, among other things:

Now, why would anyone want to pay Microsoft for the right to use this lackluster technology? After all, there were better filesystems before MS-DOS came along, and there are much better ones today. It's not because of the technology, but because of Microsoft's dominance of the computer business.

FAT was the filesystem provided by Microsoft systems, and thus it was on nearly all floppy disks. Apple implemented FAT to be compatible with Microsoft. Later on, all USB sticks and SD cards had to use it if they were to work with Windows. So, most removable storage came preformatted with FAT out of the box. Others implemented FAT to be compatible with Microsoft, and it became the de facto "standard" for removable media. But a standard with embedded patents, for which Microsoft is now demanding royalties.


Eric Raymond wrote some more about the case, this time with specifics delved into.

Most of the public attention has focused on the two FAT patents. Interestingly, these are not patents on FAT itself. Rather, they have to do with methods for translating between long filenames and the DOS-style 8+3 names that FAT still uses internally. They’ll read on any implementation of FAT that wants to present long names to the user, including open-source ones.

The flash-memory one could be the biggest worry in the bunch. It seems to be claiming things that any flash file system needs to do to manage its hardware. No threat to Linux on its own hardware, but it might be deployable, if upheld, to block anyone from shipping in the U.S. a Linux filesystem that manages flash devices, whether it’s FAT-compatible or not.


From Microsoft Watch:

Microsoft's lawsuit against TomTom is sure to drum up nothing but trouble.

[...]

Microsoft wants to enforce these alleged patents now? Against a Dutch company? TomTom is a problem created by Microsoft, for many reasons, with timing being the most important. The European Union is within months of whack, whack, whacking Microsoft for new antitrust violations. Linux and open source are en vogue on the Continent, where anti-Microsoft sentiments grow with each new EU antitrust investigation. Then there's TomTom being a European company.


Several useful points sent to us by a reader are:

  1. "The media is spreading this as a Linux case though it looks like the fight is over the patents on the filesystem FAT"


  2. "FAT, of all the filesystems, is particularly unsuited to flash media (e.g. CF) and if there is no major reason to be pulling chips out of TomTom and putting them into a computer, then there is even less of an excuse to be using it. Further, at least older versions of Windows were capable of using ext2 or one or two others."


  3. "The licensing [...] says that anyone may use FAT. So what we appear to have here is nothing more than a harassment suit, probably for the purpose of FUDing."


A Microsoft executive is meanwhile attacking the notion that open source is about... well, anything more than just cost. The "Free" in F.O.S.S. is not about cost, though.

"NOT ALL OPEN SOURCE is free" spluttered Microsoft's Kevin Turner defensively when the INQ asked him what the Vole planned to do to stay competitive in today's software market.

Forcefully stating that the concept of "free open source" was a fraudulent one, Turner said Microsoft has, "a better value proposition" than the sorcerers, but that the Vole still held the "highest regard for open source".

[...]

He neglected to mention if these "smart ways" involved suing the pants off more Linux distributors in the near future, however.


Microsoft Enderle sings this same tune about the TomTom case not having to do anything with Linux. Other Microsoft employees (or Microsoft-sympathetic bloggers) do the same thing because they want to entice FOSS developers, bringing them over to Windows while attacking Linux 'kindly' or "by accident". Here is another option.

Microsoft still sponsors OSBC [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] and also OSCON [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. So, the company which sues Linux/open source also wants to share a bed with GNU/Linux advocates, despite it become the next SCO. Microsoft believes such actions can ruin or dilute conferences, such as Apple/Mac events. Similarly, there are reporters who are helping Microsoft 'hug' open source developers; for example, Elizabeth Montalbano from IDG/IDC [1, 2, 3, 4, 5].

Her beat includes corporate and competitive coverage of Microsoft Corp., browsers, office productivity suites, Windows and Windows Live. She also covers Linux and general news and events as they happen in New York City.


Be careful what you read and believe. These people sometimes get hired by Microsoft. Caution is advised when sloppy journalism is trying to wed FOSS developers with Windows and Microsoft. It's being published in Microsoft-funded platforms too (c/f the IDC connection).

(Microsoft) Patent Trolls



One reader has given us information about the patent-trolling business that's brewing in Washington state. Acacia's connections with Microsoft [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11] may not mean much, but the company continues acquiring very silly patents that should have never been granted in the first place and then uses them to sue.

“It will seek returns for these investments.”Acacia has just acquired a patent on interactive mapping and speaking of interactive maps, here is an interesting map of Acacia Partners, with a similar one for Intellectual Vultures[sic] (a patent troll created/conceived by Microsoft). The founder, Nathan Myhrvold, is associated with DreamWorks, which as we showed recently, is associated with Microsoft's cofounder too. There may be other overlaps to be found there and it may be important because this patent troll keeps growing in terms of scale with further acquisitions (the latest example being Telcordia Technologies). It will seek returns for these investments.

Given the sorts of payments we've been seeing, it's worth keeping an eye on money flows. An informant tells us that based on a look-up applied to street address, "it's always interesting seeing what companies occupy the same building." For example:



Additionally, there is Bill Gates' own patent harvesting firm, which is based around the same area [1, 2]. Things are more interconnected than the public is led to believe.

Microsoft cronies



Other News



Patents -- including software patents -- can pass considerable costs downstream to consumers. As new and damning evidence of this:

The CUT-FATT petition said that American consumers pay $20 to $30 per television receiver for intellectual property rights that would cost about $1 elsewhere.


Over video playback, a lot more litigation exists. Latest example:

Beeney's clients claim that Lenovo knowingly violated their patent on a type of compression technology called MPEG-2, which is used in everything from DVDs to satellite television. (MPEG-2 compresses data into a more manageable form. Without it, an analog movie converted to DVD, for instance, would require dozens of disks.)


MPEG-2 is also a known and somewhat controversial issue to GNU/Linux users. It's really time to insist on Ogg.

Microsoft and Dell are being sued for an address lookup patent; therein, BT as well goes aggressive with patents. The combination of tagging with speech turns out to be a ludicrous patent and it's earned by Nokia which continues to prove that it's interested in software patents [1, 2].

Credit card transactions over the telephone have become a patent too, which is now being used against Visa and there is more coverage in TechDirt. Here is a patent on secure domain names -- the type of patents which stifle Web security rather than promote it. We wrote about this sensitive subject before [1, 2, 3].

"I would much rather spend my time and money and energy finding ways to make the Internet safer and better than bickering over patents."

--Dean Drako, Barracuda's CEO

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