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Microsoft rivals buy 22 patents to defend Linux

Litigation threat haunts open source vendors

A group of Linux proponents will purchase patents formerly held by Microsoft in an effort to defend distributors of the open-source OS against the ongoing threat of patent litigation from the software giant.

The Open Invention Network (OIN), whose members include IBM and Red Hat, is set to purchase a set of 22 patents once held by Microsoft from Allied Security Trust (AST), sources close to the OIN confirmed on Tuesday following a report in The Wall Street Journal. According to the newspaper, the patents are said to pertain to technologies found in Linux.

AST was founded by a group of technology companies to purchase patents to protect interested parties from patent litigation. Its members include HP, IBM and Verizon. The Journal said that AST acquired the patents in a private auction held by Microsoft.

Microsoft has maintained a rivalry with Linux and has been quietly striking deals with companies that distribute Linux or components of it to license technology in the OS for which Microsoft claims to hold patents. Microsoft executives have said that Linux violates more than 235 patents the company holds, a claim open-source proponents have refuted.

Microsoft usually strikes patent deals with companies before bringing cases to court, but a case earlier this year against GPS navigation device vendor TomTom, which uses Linux in its devices, was a notable exception.

TomTom eventually agreed to pay Microsoft to settle the case, which Microsoft insisted was a mere patent disagreement rather than an attack against Linux.

Not all Linux and open-source proponents felt the same way about it, however, though most open-source companies - which are much smaller players than Microsoft - would rather pay the proprietary software company to protect themselves against litigation than try to fight its deep pockets in court.

"With the current patent system in place, it is to be expected that various parties with competing interests will continue to acquire patents and patent portfolios for defensive purposes, if nothing else," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with Red Monk.

O'Grady said that until more is known about what is covered in the patents OIN is purchasing, it's "impossible to assess the implications" of Tuesday's move. However, if the group is going through the trouble to acquire them, "presumably they at least believe they will be useful to Linux, either offensively or defensively," he said.


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