Microsoft-Samsung pact includes Linux patent 'protection'

Provision raises specter of controversial claim by Steve Ballmer

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday signed a broad cross-licensing agreement with close partner Samsung Electronics Co. that includes a controversial provision granting the Korean electronics conglomerate rights to patents that Microsoft claims have been illegally borrowed by the Linux operating system.

Samsung is the third company to ink a similar cross-licensing pact, which critics said de facto advances Microsoft’s unproven claims to Linux-related intellectual property. The first deal, an alliance signed Nov. 2 between Microsoft and longtime rival Novell Inc., saw the latter firm agreeing to pay Microsoft $40 million in return for immunity for Novell’s customers against any Linux-related patent violations.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer riled the open-source community a few weeks later when he openly said that because of Linux’s unauthorized use of Microsoft intellectual property, "every Linux customer basically has an undisclosed balance-sheet liability."

His comments drew rebukes from open-source community members and vendors, including Novell, which argued that it was absurd for Microsoft to claim its patents are violated by the free open-source operating system. But they warned that the more such pacts Microsoft signs, the better its as-yet-unproven claims may look in court if Microsoft someday tries to enforce them.

According to a press release, Samsung will be able to use Microsoft’s patents in its wide range of consumer electronic and PC products. Microsoft will gain access to Samsung’s large patent portfolio "relating to digital media and computer-related inventions." An unspecified amount of money will be exchanged between the two firms compensating each company for the value of their respective patent portfolios.

Microsoft executives were unavailable to comment. Samsung, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Even groups such as the Open Invention Network, which was critical of Microsoft’s deal with Novell, declined to comment.

OIN was founded by IBM, Novell, Red Hat Inc. and others in late 2005 with the express goal of buying up Linux-related patents to protect the open-source operating system from just such claims.

Besides Samsung and Novell, Microsoft agreed last month to a cross-licensing deal with Fuji Xerox Co. that includes Linux patent protection for the Japanese firm.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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