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Microsoft-TomTom Settlement Leads to FAT War

Microsoft and TomTom settled a patent dispute late last month that rang alarm bells among the open source Linux community -- and it still does.

The case began when Microsoft sued TomTom, an Amsterdam-based maker of GPS navigation devices for automobiles, in late February. TomTom then countersued. On March 30, Microsoft announced that the litigation was settled, explaining that the case involved patents on Microsoft's File Allocation Table (FAT) technology.

Microsoft's announcement also included an oblique reference to General Public License Version 2, a GNU open source license that permits the modification and sharing of Linux source code.

"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 General Public License Version 2 (GPLv2)," Microsoft's announcement stated.

Under the terms of the settlement, "TomTom will pay Microsoft for coverage under the eight car navigation and file management systems patents in the Microsoft case." In addition, Microsoft gets covered under four patents mentioned in TomTom's countersuit, the announcement explained.

The five-year agreement covers past and future sales of TomTom's U.S. products. TomTom gets no payment from Microsoft and will remove FAT LFN technology within two years from its products.

In the wake of the agreement, The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) warned that the open source community likely faces future "patent aggression" from Microsoft, even though GPLv2 wasn't violated in the case.

Others chimed in, including Jim Zemlin, executive director of the nonprofit Linux Foundation, who recommended the removal of FAT by software vendors.

"The Linux Foundation is here to assist interested parties in the technical coordination of removing the FAT filesystem from products that make use of it today," Zemlin wrote in his blog.

TomTom may have settled with Microsoft concerning its FAT patents, but the SFLC saw no reason to do so.

"The FAT file system patents on which Microsoft sued are now and have always been invalid patents in our professional opinion," an SFLC statement explained. "We will act forcefully to protect all users and developers of free software against further intimidation or interference from these patents."

About the Author

Jim Barthold is a freelance writer based in Delanco, N.J. covering a variety of technology subjects.

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