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Linux Defenders buy patents to ward off trolls

Sep 8, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 2 views

The Open Invention Network (OIN) announced that as part of its “Linux Defenders” program, it has acquired 22 Linux-focused patents that had previously been owned by Microsoft, says eWEEK. OIN purchased the 3D graphics-related patents from Allied Security Trust in an effort to protect them from “patent trolls” intending to assert them against Linux firms.

The 22 patents had been previously marketed and sold by Microsoft, but were purchased by Allied Security Trust (AST) in July in a private auction, says the eWEEK story by Darryl Taft. AST had purchased the patents to keep them from being acquired by non-practicing entities, known as "patent trolls," which might seek to threaten Linux vendors with lawsuits, according to the story. In a follow-up story by Taft, he notes that Microsoft had acquired the patents in a deal with Silicon Graphics (SGI).

Taft quotes OIN CEO Keith Bergelt as saying, "The prospect of these patents being placed in the hands of non-practicing entities was a threat that has been averted with these purchases, irrespective of patent quality and whether or not the patents truly read on Linux."

According to the AST web site, AST is a Delaware statutory trust that has invested $40 million in patent purchases over its 30 months of operations. The trust generates no profits, says the story. Instead, the intent is to enable patent holders to generate a return on their patent rights while keeping trolls at bay, says eWEEK. There are currently 11 member companies in AST, including Cisco, Verizon, and HP, but the trust hopes to grow to 30 or 40 members, says the story.

Hidden motives by Microsoft?

In Taft's second story, he asks Bergelt about Microsoft's possible motives for selling the patents. Bergelt suggests that because AST has a "catch and release" clause, in which after a year, any patents acquired by AST and adopted by its members must be publicly sold, Microsoft may have intended that the 22 patents find their way back "into the hands of litigious entities," says the story.

Taft quotes Bergelt as saying, "My concern is if you're selling widgets, why not go the biggest buyer in the market? I don't know what their motivation was, but we're one of the biggest purchasers [of Linux-related patents] on the market. If you had other motives you wouldn't come to us. It's possible they had ulterior motives."

eWeek notes a statement by Microsoft, however, saying that the patents were sold because they "were deemed to be non-core to our business and non-essential for our IP portfolio."

OIN and the Linux Defenders

OIN was established by IBM, Sony, Philips, Novell, and Red Hat back in 2005, and has since been joined by NEC. The company acquires patents and licenses them royalty-free to companies that agree not to enforce their own patents against Linux and "certain Linux-related applications," says OIN.

CEO Bergelt was an outspoken critic of Microsoft's lawsuit against TomTom earlier this year over the use of the FAT file-system in embedded Linux products. TomTom subsequently settled with Microsoft, but OIN's Linux Defenders program then posted three of the eight patents cited in Microsoft's lawsuit for prior art review by the Linux community in the hopes of convincing the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) to invalidate them.

Co-sponsored by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) and the Linux Foundation (LF), OIN's Linux Defenders program was launched last December with the primary goal of making prior art more readily accessible to patent and trademark office examiners via defensive publications, says OIN. (The Linux Defenders logo is shown at right.) Endorsed by the USPTO, defensive publications are said to provide a form of preemptive disclosure that prevents other parties from obtaining a patent.


eWEEK's original story about the OIN patent acquisition may be found here. The follow-up story on Microsoft's motives for selling the patents may be found here.

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