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Microsoft led consortium buys Novell assets

Questions raised over Unix patent ownership
Tue Nov 23 2010, 14:12

QUESTIONS have been raised as to whether Novell's sale of assets to a Microsoft backed consortium has led to the Vole acquiring a number of Unix patents.

Novell's $2.2 billion sale to Attachmate Corporation included a $450 million sale of "certain intellectual property assets" to CPTN Holdings LLC, a consortium that is led by Microsoft. The question is, which of Novell's assets will CPTN Holdings acquire?

In fighting off the almost laughable legal challenge by SCO over Unix 'ownership', it was determined Novell, not SCO, owns AT&T's former Unix patents. Aside from owning the core Unix patents, Novell also runs Suse, a Linux distribution that goes head to end with Red Hat in the enterprise market.

At this point it is not known why Microsoft is interested in Novell's patents, after all the two firms have a chequered history when it comes to intellectual property battles. There's still ongoing litigation between the companies over anti-competitive behaviour on Microsoft's part in the office suite business, an industry that Novell used to compete in with its Wordperfect word processor.

It is also coming to the end of a five-year ceasefire agreed to by the two firms that stopped Microsoft from asserting any rights over Novell's Suse Linux distribution. That deal still has a year left to run but given that the sale of assets won't be completed until sometime in the first quarter of 2011, it does seem possible that Microsoft is getting its ducks in a row.

If Microsoft's acquisition of Novell's IP assets is indeed the start of what some might see as the Vole's second sustained attack on Linux through the courts, then it will find that a lot has changed since its sock puppet SCO tried its hand seven years ago. Back in 2003, when news of SCO's baseless claims of Unix ownership became public, the Linux operating system had far fewer supporters in business than it does now.

The last seven years have seen Linux not only grow up with firms such as Google publicly backing Linux alongside traditional cheerleaders such as Red Hat and IBM, but overall use of Linux has skyrocketed. Linux has also seen significant growth in enterprise deployment, including in the weighty financial sector. Any aggressive action by Microsoft is likely to result in far greater backlash than SCO faced in 2003 and might end up with the Vole facing another challenge that is simply can do without.

Of course all this is assuming that Microsoft has shelled out all that money to acquire Novell's Unix patents and that those patents are even relevant to Linux, given the licensing protection that the GPL extends to patents. It can also be seen as Microsoft hedging its bets against its Windows operating system dying on its feet and the firm having to start again from scratch.

In related news, the new owner of Novell, Attachmate, has said that it plans to operate Suse as a stand-alone business unit of which Opensuse, a free consumer oriented Linux distribution, is an "important part". In a statement, Jeff Hawn, the chairman and CEO of Attachmate said, "If this transaction closes, then after closing, Attachmate Corporation anticipates no change to the relationship between the SUSE business and the openSUSE project as a result of this transaction."

Not for the first time, Microsoft's stealthy dealings with software patents have cast a cloud of suspicion over the Vole's intentions. µ



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