Microsoft's patent for the FAT file system - the basis for the company's first salvo in its licensing offensive - is to be reviewed by the US Patent Office, at the request of a free software group.
Microsoft introduced its first ever intellectual property licensing program in December, having hired the senior IBM executive responsible for building Big Blue's patent revenue stream from zero in 1985 into what's now a billion dollar business, Marshall Phelps. Redmond calls it "liberalization", and set the royalty payments relatively low for its intended customers, such as camera manufacturers who use the FAT file system for removable storage. But any royalty fee poses an insurmountable obstacle for free software developers, the attorney behind the request told us today.
"Free software is licensed in a way that prohibits royalties - you can't pay Microsoft a license and distribute your software under a free software license," says Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation which has filed the request to invalidate the patent.
Although the open source community has been transfixed by the SCO case, Microsoft's threat is far more serious, as it seeks to make distributing patent-encumbered free software illegal. If Microsoft asserts more intellectual property claims under a royalty bearing license, if these claims affect free software, and if Microsoft chooses to uphold its rights and wins, then free software developers would have little option but to stop work under existing open licenses. That's a lot of ifs, but Microsoft has been unsuccessful in impeding the growth of open source software so far, and has shown it has both the means and motive. If successful, today's licenses would eventually become a curious historical footnote for future computer science students.
According to the Public Patent Foundation's request, "the '517 patent is causing immeasurable injury to the public by serving as a tool to enlarge Microsoft’s monopoly while also preventing competition from Free Software." "Microsoft is using its control over the interchange of digital media to aid its ongoing effort to deter competition from Free and Open Source Software. Specifically, Microsoft does not offer licenses to the '517 patent for use in Free Software. As such, the '517 patent stands as a potential impediment to the development and use of Free Software because Free Software users are denied the ability to interchange media with machines or devices running Microsoft owned or licensed software."
The says that Microsoft's FAT patent (5,579, 517) is invalid because of three prior art patents, filed by IBM and Xerox in 1988, 1989 and 1990. Microsoft was not granted '517 until 1996.
Ravicher told The Register that he'd welcome a move by Microsoft to license their portfolio for use in free software under reasonable royalty-free terms. ®