Linus Torvalds just can’t help but be a thorn in Microsoft’s side.
First, he created an open source project that completely upset Microsoft’s business model. And now, he has helped shoot down an important Microsoft patent in Redmond’s crusade to wring licensing dollars out of Google Android and other versions of Linux.
Microsoft has coerced many Android phone makers into paying licensing fees for various Microsoft patents related to operating system design, and in some cases, it has actually taken legal action against such companies, including smartphone manufacturer Motorola. In October of 2010, it sued Motorola in federal court, and it filed a complaint with the United States International Trade Commission, or ITC.
Last December, Microsoft scored a victory when the ITC Administrative Law Judge Theodore R. Essex found that Motorola had violated four Microsoft patents. But the ruling could also eliminate an important Microsoft software patent that has been invoked in lawsuits against Barnes & Noble and car navigation device-maker Tom Tom.
According to Linus Torvalds, he was deposed in the case this past fall, and apparently his testimony about a 20-year-old technical discussion — along with a discussion group posting made by an Amiga fan, known only as Natuerlich! — helped convince the Administrative Law Judge that the patent was invalid.
Essex’s ruling is merely an initial determination. It is being reviewed and could yet be reversed by the Commission. But if it’s upheld, it could work against Microsoft as it continues to fight Android and other Linux-based systems that it believes violate its intellectual property.
Microsoft says that Motorola violated one of its patents, known as the 352 patent. This patent covers a technique for storing filenames with lots of characters in old filesystems such as the Windows FAT (File Allocation Table) filesystem that are designed to use very short filenames. Mobile phone makers use this type of technology so that their devices interoperate with other operating systems, including Windows.
“Motorola had found this posting of mine about long filenames used in a compatible manner with short file names… and it predated the Microsoft patent by three years,” says Torvalds.