IP Innovation, a patent services company, has alleged that Linux has infringed patents it owns, four years on from SCO's lawsuits against IBM, Novell, the open source community and Linux users.
The complaint has been made against the two main Linux distributors, so users should not be impacted directly. However, the case could mark the beginning of a trend where Linux comes under attack for patent infringements, which could have a detrimental effect on the way open source software such as Linux is developed.
In his personal blog post, US-based lawyer Mark Radcliffe, senior partner at DLA Piper, said, "The recent lawsuit in the Eastern District of Texas by IP Innovation LLC against Red Hat and Novell may be the first volley in a patent war against open source software."
He said, "Since companies rarely sue end-users the risk to end-users is low. This issue has been on the table for years, but most users accept the risk. It is really no different than patent risks of commercial software which may or may not come with an indemnity."
Clive Longbottom, service director at Quocirca, said the IP Innovation patent was incredibly far-reaching, covering the capability to show more than one graphical user interface workspace on a screen, which means it could affect Microsoft, Apple, TomTom, room-control units seen in modern offices, in-car computers and televisions.
This is not the first time Linux and open source has come under attack. Although the SCO Group versus IBM case was a contract dispute between two suppliers, Stephen Walli, an open source consultant who has written a number of books on open systems, said this new case is a patent infringement case with broader implications on all users.
Walli says major Linux supporters such as IBM could help the open source community. "There is nothing to say that the resources of an IBM legal department, or its external IP legal counsel, will show up and begin helping for free.
He said since the patent applies to desktop technology, Red Hat is likely to try to demonstrate most of its deployment is server-based. He expected the open source community to develop software to work around the patent.
Interestingly, Apple settled a similar suit instead of fighting it. However, Walli did not believe this demonstrated the patent was particularly strong. "Apple did not want to take the time to find out in the grand scheme of things. Also, Microsoft will regularly settle instead of fighting patent claims. It is just easier in some cases." Walli said the Linux community had a much stronger reason to attack the patent itself.