Linux community codes around Microsoft's FAT patents

Microsoft finally got around to substantiating its claims that Linux violates 235 Microsoft patents, and the Linux community quickly set to work coding around those claims.

Ever since Microsoft dropped its bombshell on Linux, claiming that the open-source operating system violates 235 of its patents, the Linux community has responded with a cogent counterargument: "If we're, in fact, infringing, point out the infringements and we'll simply code around your patents."

With Microsoft's lawsuit against GPS device manufacturer TomTom, Microsoft gave the community what it wanted, which has now resulted in the Linux community coding around Microsoft's two FAT file-system patent claims against Linux.

Two down, 233 more to go?

In 2008, Microsoft filed suit against TomTom for patent infringement related to GPS technology and its FAT file-system patents, allegedly infringed by TomTom's use of Linux. The two parties eventually settled, but Microsoft gave enough of a clue as to its patent claims that the Red Hat-sponsored Open Invention Network and others set off to sift through the merits of Microsoft's patents and, if possible, code around them.

As Andrew Tridgell recently explained to the Linux kernel mailing list, it would appear that the Linux community has accomplished exactly that, providing a workaround to Microsoft's patent claims.

The reasons are somewhat technical, but the approach seems to pass muster, as Ars Technica reports:

The Linux Foundation arranged for the patch to undergo extensive review by patent lawyers. They are confident that the patch will effectively evade the common namespace method described by Microsoft's patents. It will also function properly in virtually all cases. The only situation in which it will be problematic is when the data on the filesystem is accessed from old versions of DOS or Windows that still require the 8.3 filenames. Tridgell believes that such a scenario is rare enough that it will not impact a significant number of users. Those who require compatibility with those older versions of DOS or Windows can use the Linux "msdos" filesystem, which enforces 8.3 names and doesn't use Microsoft's patented dual-naming convention.

In early 2009, open-source luminary Larry Augustin urged the Linux community to "get the FAT out." While Tridgell's approach doesn't quite do this, it does appear to obviate Microsoft's patent claims.

This should make Linux users happy. Whether it will make Microsoft happy to see how trivial it is to code around its patent claims remains to be seen. That's the problem with launching nuclear marketing attacks against the legal integrity of open-source code: given enough eyeballs, all patent claims are shallow.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.

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