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Analysis: Microsoft-TomTom settlement is end of a battle, not the war


In a surprising turn of developments, GPS navigation device vendor TomTom International BV has agreed to pay Microsoft Corp. to settle patent-infringement cases the companies had recently filed against each other.

The lawsuits rose above the ordinary run of patent litigation because three of Microsoft’s patents touched on areas that are also covered by the open-source General Public License Version 2 (GPLv2) copyright restrictions on Linux. Thus, the lawsuit marked the first time that Microsoft had legally challenged Linux’s intellectual property .

The case further heated up when TomTom countersued Microsoft and joined the Open Invention Network (OIN), an open-source patent protection group. But the case came to an abrupt end on March 30.

In return for an undisclosed licensing fee, TomTom can use Microsoft’s patents. However, according to a statement from Peter Spours, TomTom’s director of IP Strategy and Transactions, the agreement “is drafted in a way that ensures TomTom’s full compliance with its obligations under the GPLv2, and thus reaffirms our commitment to the open-source community.”

Spours declined, however, to explain how TomTom can both use the patent’s intellectual property (IP) and conform with the GPLv2.

Specifically, the two companies claim that “the agreement includes patent coverage for Microsoft’s three file management systems patents provided in a manner that is fully compliant with TomTom’s obligations under the GPLv2.” But, “TomTom will remove from its products the functionality related to two file management system patents (the ‘FAT LFN patents’) that enables efficient naming, organizing, storing and accessing of file data. TomTom will remove this functionality within two years, and the agreement provides for coverage directly to TomTom’s end customers under these patents during that time.”

In other words, TomTom may technically be using the Microsoft FAT LFN (File Allocation Table/Long File Name) patents for the next two years, but it won’t be using those patents’ features. The statement also implies that TomTom will be replacing the long file name support provided by these patents with a different, non-Microsoft, technology.

In a statement, Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft’s corporate VP and deputy general counsel of IP and licensing, said, “The file management system patents, which increase file management system efficiency and functionality, have also been licensed by many companies, including those that produce mixed-source products.”

The open-source legal community is not amused. An open-source legal expert and analysts agreed that the legal issues brought up in the case are far from settled.

The Software Freedom Law Center, an organization focused on protecting open-source and free software, said in a statement that the “settlement between Microsoft and TomTom ends one phase of the community’s response to Microsoft patent aggression and begins another. On the basis of the information we have, we have no reason to believe that TomTom’s settlement agreement with Microsoft violates the license on the kernel, Linux, or any other free software used in its products. The settlement neither implies that Microsoft patents are valid nor that TomTom’s products were or are infringing.”

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