Microsoft sues TiVo...but not over Linux. Surprise!

Microsoft has an ax to grind against Linux, but it appears to be fighting for a customer, and not against Linux, in its TiVo lawsuit.

Hard as it may be to believe, sometimes Microsoft's patent lawsuits have nothing to do with Linux. Increasingly, however, they all seem to end with the same punchline: "Get a license to our patent portfolio and everything will work out."

The latest Microsoft patent target TiVo
When Microsoft intervened in AT&T's patent infringement suit against Linux-based TiVo; it said it was doing so to uphold its IP interests. While the open-source community fretted that the intervention might signal evil intent against Linux, closer inspection by Groklaw revealed the lawsuit "has absolutely nothing to do with Linux."

Phew!

At least, one hopes so. As Red Hat evangelist Jan Wildeboer suggests,

The 6,008,803 patent...looks very broad. Might affect all kinds of media center [software]. So also Linux apps. The real question is, "Which Linux media center app infringes on Tivo patents?

In other words, we're not out of the woods yet, though it does appear that Microsoft's interest is in supporting the largest customer of its Mediaroom software, not in undermining Linux. Not this time, anyway.

Microsoft doesn't love Linux. But Linux is just one big problem the company must face, not the only problem.

Still, it would be nice if Microsoft wore its patent reform hat more consistently. The company wrings its hands over the state of the broken patent system, but it doesn't seem averse to setting up its own patent toll booth to collect from that system.

It's one thing to seek patents for defensive purposes. But Microsoft's strategy calls to mind that old football adage: the best defense is a good offense. Its patent licensing scheme is offense on overdrive, as developed by ex-IBMer Marshall Phelps .

Microsoft seemingly has enough IBM patent portfolio envy to justify its relentless requests that potential infringers enter into patent licensing agreements with Microsoft. As BusinessWeek reports, IBM may have a more extensive patent portfolio, but Microsoft's is arguably more valuable.

Microsoft apparently wants to extract that value, one license agreement at a time (witness this week's deal with Funai ), more than it wants to reform the patent system.

It would probably also love to bury Linux through patent infringement suits, but could hardly dare to make a full-frontal assault on Linux, given the backlash it would have from partners and customers. There just aren't that many enterprises these days that don't use Linux, making an aggressive anti-Linux strategy dangerous at best.

Microsoft's patent suit against TomTom showed that it could be sneaky about enforcing patent claims against Linux. This TiVo suit, however, just shows that Microsoft doesn't have a one-track mind on beating Linux through patent suits.

It's not surprising, but it's also not a reason for the Linux community to lower its guard.

About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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