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Monday, 14 May 2007

Microsoft's patent arsenal takes aim

As reported (and already heavily commented) on Slashdot and Patently-O, Microsoft have started making threatening noises about their patent portfolio, accusing unnamed open source software providers of infringing 235 of their patents.

In an article in Fortune magazine Brad Smith (photo right: looks like a nice friendly chap), Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel, claims that various freely available pieces of software infringe their patents. Although he refuses to disclose the actual patents involved, or any alleged infringers, the targets break down into:

  • Linux kernel: 42 patents infringed;

  • Linux graphical user interfaces: 65 patents infringed;

  • Open Office: 45 patents infringed;

  • Email programs: 15 patents infringed; and

  • Other "assorted programs": 68 patents infringed.

  • The IPKat is a little suspicious of the fact that no actual patents were mentioned, and wonders whether this announcement from Microsoft is just posturing. He also wonders how many of the patents would stand up to proper scrutiny, which they would inevitably be subjected to by the open source community if given a chance. Furthermore, the problem of who to sue comes to mind, considering that (i) Linux is available for free from many different sources; (ii) there are many different 'flavours' of Linux and Linux GUIs available, with presumably different levels of infringement in each; and (iii) there are many many freely available add-on components for Linux, written by and for the open source community.

    Microsoft would presumably have to be careful about sueing over Open Office, which is supported by Sun Microsystems who have a long history of legal disputes with Microsoft over competition and IP rights. IBM and Red Hat, being proponents of both open source and patenting, might also have something to say about Microsoft's patent threats, not to mention the famous pioneer of GNU and the associated GPL, Richard Stallman (photo left: an even friendlier-looking chap).

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