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Microsoft sues PND vendor over FAT filesystem

Feb 26, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 80 views

Microsoft filed a patent infringement action against a vendor of Linux-based personal navigation devices (PNDs), and for the first time appears to target open-source Linux components. The company listed eight patent violations found in TomTom's Linux-based PNDs, three involving the device's use of the FAT filesystem.

(Click for larger view of the TomTom Go 940 Live)

The suit was filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington against the U.S. arm of the company, TomTom Inc., says Microsoft. Redmond has also filed with the International Trade Commission (ITC) against Amsterdam, Netherlands-based parent company TomTom NV, in a bid to block import of the allegedly offending devices. The complaint lists eight violated patents, and seeks unspecified damages and a permanent injunction.

Like the other leading consumer PND manufacturer, Garmin, TomTom uses embedded Linux in its popular navigation devices, including the latest Go 940 Live model shown above. The devices incorporate a mix of proprietary and open source technologies (see farther below).

Banging on the TomTom

Microsoft has previously sued companies using Linux. However, these previous suits have targeted proprietary components running atop Linux. According to a blog from Seattle-based TechFlash, however, three of the eight TomTom counts specifically cover open-source Linux technology.

Two of the apparently Linux-related patents cover long filenames (Joliet extensions), while the other applies to a flash file system management algorithm. Microsoft appears to be alleging that the GPL-protected Linux VFAT filesystem borrows too heavily from Windows technology for handling long filenames. This is hardly the first round in Microsoft's battle over FAT.

Can MS still claim ownership of FAT?

FAT has become the lingua franca of essentially every type of removable storage device used by consumers, from floppy disks to USB drives to digital camera and music player memory cards. Without support for such devices, Linux could face dire challenges in the desktop and consumer electronics fields. Free software programs such as Samba, which allows Linux computers to interact with Windows networks, could also face problems.

Yet, as with the GIF patents that were rescinded a few years back, decades of non-enforcement could make it difficult for Microsoft to now demand royalties from users like TomTom. Microsoft earlier lost a similar case in Germany over its FAT patents.

Microsoft began offering FAT licenses in December of 2003, a subtle hint that it was considering a FAT patent enforcement plan. Shortly thereafter, PUBPAT took an interest in the case, attempting to invalidate the patents by demonstrating their alleged basis in prior art. PUBPAT, or the Public Patent Foundation, describes itself as a non-profit legal services organization that aims to represent the public's interests against “the harms caused by the patent system, particularly the harms caused by wrongly issued patents and unsound patent policy.”

Microsoft's allegations against TomTom

The eight U.S. patents that Microsoft has listed in the complaint (which does not list individual TomTom device models) include three that appear to involve open-source Linux technologies:

  • 5,579,517 - “Common Name Space for Long and Short Filenames”
  • 5,758,352 - “Common Name Space for Long and Short Filenames”
  • 6,256,642 - “Method and System for File System Management Using a Flash-Erasable, Programmable, Read-only Memory”

The complaint also refers to proprietary navigation technologies allegedly covered by these U.S. patents:

  • 6,175,789 — “Vehicle Computer System with Open Platform Architecture”
  • 7,054,745 — “Method and System For Generating Driving Directions”
  • 6,704,032 — “Methods and Arrangements for Interacting with Controllable Objects within a Graphical User Interface Environment Using Various Input Mechanisms”
  • 7,117,286 — “Portable Computing Device-integrated Appliance”
  • 6,202,008 — “Vehicle Computer System with Wireless Internet Connectivity”

According to some reports, TomTom has vowed to fight the lawsuit, but so far the only official statement has come from Microsoft. Stated Horacio Gutierrez, corporate VP and deputy general counsel of Intellectual Property and Licensing, at Microsoft, “We have taken this action after attempting for more than a year to engage in licensing discussions with TomTom. We have an established intellectual property licensing program, and the patents involved in this case, relating to innovations in car navigation technology and other computing functionality, have been licensed by many others.”

In his statement, Gutierrez noted that “other companies that utilize Microsoft patents have licensed and we are asking TomTom to do the same.” He then concluded, “We remain open to quickly resolving this situation with them through an IP licensing agreement.”

Microsoft's cold war against Linux turns hot

Indeed, in the vast majority of cases when Microsoft has approached vendors of Linux-based technology over patent violations, the companies have chosen to settle. Earlier this month, for example, Brother Industries entered into a broad patent cross-licensing agreement that enables access to each company's respective patent portfolio, including Brother's embedded Linux printing products.

The Brother deal was similar to the oft-criticized covenant between Novell and Microsoft, as well as other cross-patent deals regarding Linux technology, with vendors such as LG Electronics. Open source advocates claim that the companies that have entered the agreements are playing into Microsoft's hands and undermining the spirit of the open source movement.

Since launching its IP licensing program in December 2003, Microsoft has signed more than 500 licensing agreements, says the company. Other agreements regarding printing technology alone include deals with HP, Samsung, Fuji Xerox, Seiko Epson, and Kyocera Mita, many of which offer printers based on embedded Linux technology. In recent years, Linux has proven especially popular in large, networked, high-speed office printers, and now the technology is dominating the increasingly hot PND category as well. Will netbooks be next?

The TomTom Go 700, circa 2005

Until now, however, if Linux impinges any Microsoft patents, the Redmond Giant has not come out and said so. Instead, Microsoft officials from time to time allude to possible patent infringements, presumably to create “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” (FUD) about its open source competitor. For example, in 2007, Microsoft lawyer Brad Smith asserted that Linux violates 42 Microsoft patents. However, in SCO-like fashion, the lawyer did not say which ones were actually violated.

Inside the TomTom Go distribution

When LinuxDevices reviewed the TomTom Go five years ago, we found that it ran a modified version of the ARM Linux kernel, with additional drivers for specific Go hardware. Today, on TomTom's GPL page, which covers versions of the Go distribution up through version 8.x, the company provides source patches relative to a specific ARM Linux kernel, and as a full archive including kernel source. Version 8.x lists 2.6.13 and versions of the ARM Linux kernel, as well as a variety of GPL protected components, including BlueZ libraries, GNU binutils, GNU gcc 3.3.4, glibc 2.3.2, BusyBox 1.0, and other utilities.


A PDF copy of the Microsoft's federal complaint against TomTom may be found here.

More on TomTom's PNDs may be found here, and its GPL page should be here.

More information on Microsoft's licensing programs may be found here.

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