Why TomTom is the new SCO (in the nicest possible way)

The 2003 SCO lawsuit, for those of you too young to recall, began as a modest request for $1 billion from IBM for allegedly “misusing and misappropriating SCO’s proprietary software” amongst other things.

The amount ballooned into first $3 billion, and then $5 billion. But what's most interesting about this extraordinary lawsuit is that it has flowered in all sorts of unexpected ways, to the point of spawning nearly half a dozen lawsuits against companies like Autozone, Daimler Chrysler, Novell and Red Hat (see the wonderful graphic lovingly put together by Groklaw.)

When Microsoft sued TomTom for allegedly infringing on some of its patents, including three that involved Linux, it seemed like a straightforward enough case, and one that could end quite quickly if TomTom simply buckled under, as Microsoft doubtless hoped, and coughed up for some licences.

Then some issues about the case began to emerge: Samba's Jeremy Allison pointed out that TomTom couldn't simply license stuff from Microsoft, since this would be in contravention of the GNU GPL licence it had implicitly agreed to by using Linux in its products.

That suddenly made the TomTom case rather fascinating from a legal point of view, since it became a more complex issue involving several intertwined strands.

TomTom made it even more interesting by countersuing Microsoft for alleged infringement of its (TomTom's) patents.

That's pretty much a standard gambit in these cases, aiming to give the defendant a little more room for manoeuvre. Not content with that, though, TomTom has now made yet another clever move:

Open Invention Network (OIN), the company formed to enable and protect Linux, today extended the Linux ecosystem with the signing of TomTom as a licensee. By becoming a licensee, TomTom has joined the growing list of companies that recognize the importance of participating in a substantial community of Linux supporters and leveraging the Open Invention Network to further spur open source innovation.

Patents owned by Open Invention Network are available royalty-free to any company, institution or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against the Linux System. This enables companies to continue to make significant corporate and capital expenditure investments in Linux - helping to fuel economic growth.

By developing a web of Linux developers, distributors, sellers, resellers and end-users that license its patent portfolio, Open Invention Network is creating a supportive and shielded ecosystem to ensure the growth and adoption of Linux.

I don't think this materially affects the Microsoft lawsuit, since these OIN patents are not intended to be used for attack, more to remove possible obstacles. It simply emphasises the increasing alignment of TomTom's interests with those of the wider GNU/Linux community, and represents a nice poke in the eye for Microsoft.

But it does emphasise one thing: that the TomTom saga is fast becoming as rich, complex – and, let's admit it: entertaining – as the apparently unending and always improbable SCO suit, still rumbling on. Who said patent law was dull?


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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