Microsoft Asks TomTom for Directions to Court: Lawsuit Claims Involve Linux Implementation

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 26, 2009

As some OStatic readers have likely already heard, Microsoft is taking TomTom, a manufacturer of in-car navigation devices, to court for patent infringement. This is especially disturbing to those in the open source world for at least two reasons -- Microsoft's previous claims that Linux violates over two hundred patents it currently holds, and three of the claims against TomTom deal with TomTom's implementation of the Linux kernel in its products.

Techdirt's Mike Masnick presents some good analysis of the story, including links to the patents in question and those with particularly tenuous claims (in terms of infringement and patentability, in a few instances). While this is worrisome to those who use Linux, and certainly causing TomTom executives to lose sleep, I can't help but wonder, really, what this positioning actually means. Why is this coming up now? If hundreds of Microsoft patents are being violated, why go after a company infringing on eight (with three relating directly to Linux)? And why TomTom?

Masnick's piece lists the patents in question. I'd recommend anyone checking the links read the patent abstract, and then go directly to the claims. All of the patent titles seem exceedingly broad (Method and system for generating driving directions seems as though it should be owned by Rand McNally, or even MapQuest), and while the claims might give Microsoft's arguments a bit more bite, they still feel obvious.

I was employed editing and preparing patents for publication in the mid-nineties. There are some problems with the patenting procedure in general, and when technology is involved (specifically software -- hardware is slightly less nebulous) these problems become more complicated. Those applying for patents, for instance, aren't necessarily required to prove whether their inventions work, just that the idea, the design, or the production method haven't been claimed previously. In rare cases, patents are granted for improbable devices (one favorite at the office was the patent for a device to keep decapitated heads alive), but it's more common to see patents issued with claims so broad it's difficult to determine what isn't included.

I agree with Masnick that TomTom could make a strong case against Microsoft on all counts in this case. I agree with his prediction (and share his regret) that TomTom probably won't, simply because it is out-lawyered. I am still uneasy about why this is happening in this arena.

It could very well be the Linux patents are bundled in the lawsuit, but aren't central to much of anything. It could be that Microsoft is creating a legal precedent so that it has a stronger case to support its infringement claims against larger companies. I think either is plausible -- did a partnership Microsoft was proposing in secret with TomTom go south? Perhaps Microsoft wanted to purchase technology TomTom owns (think of where TomTom and Sync overlap), TomTom refused the terms, and this is some type of retaliation? Or maybe Microsoft is laying the groundwork for larger, more recognizable open source conquests?

It's not easy to say at this point. I am quite sure that if TomTom settles, it will be an incentive for Microsoft to push more aggressively (at a much faster pace) into alleged infringement claims. If TomTom doesn't settle -- regardless of how long the court proceedings drag on, or even the outcome -- there's some comfort in the notion that it won't take long to see what spurred Microsoft to bring this case forward, now, against this company, and how exactly Linux factors into the equation.