Firm hired Microsoft patent execs, then sued Red Hat and Novell over Linux

John Shinal · October 12, 2007 · Short URL:

 The Linux operating system has never gotten much love at Microsoft Corp., for obvious reasons.


Linux is based on open-source code development and essentially given away for free by firms like Red Hat and Novell, which hope to make Linux hay by selling maintenance and support services.


Microsoft, on the other hand, makes its living selling high-margin, proprietary programs that are defended by an army of patent lawyers and licensing negotiators.


For 16 years, Brad Brunell was a part of that army, where he rose to the position of general manager for intellectual property licensing. On Oct. 1, Brunell left the Redmond fold to join his former Microsoft colleague Jonathan Taub, a patent lawyer who negotiated licensing deals for the giant's mobile and embedded devices unit. 


Taub in July had joined Acacia Research Corp., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based firm whose many patent-enforcement units are busy, to say the least. The company, which owns scores of patents covering a wide range of technologies, has signed more than 60 licensing deals this year, including ones with major players such as EMC Corp. and Adobe Systems. 


In August, Acacia, whose shares are publicly traded on the Nasdaq under the ticker ACTG, signed a licensing deal with Novell for technology related to portable storage devices.


But less than two weeks after Brunell agreed to join Acacia, and just three months into Taub's tenure as Acacia VP, the company pulled the trigger on a patent lawsuit against both Novell and Red Hat. Read the complaint here.


Now, the timing of the suit may not be linked to the arrival of the Microsoftees. By the time I spotted the germ of this story on, it was too late to make a call from Acacia and reasonably expect one in return. We will try on Monday, during business hours.


But either way, the suit  illustrates the long list of powerful, Redmond-based enemies faced by companies that hope to maintain a sustainable business from Linux, which Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has previously called "a cancer" and a top threat to Windows.


Last week, at a Microsoft event in the U.K., Ballmer for the first time reportedly mentioned Red Hat users by name as being among those who have an obligation to compensate his company for using its intellectual property. His words took further the comments made by Microsoft licensing chief Horacio Gutierrez, who said in May that Linux violates 45 Microsoft patents and open source software more than 200 in all. 


It's beginning to look like the deal Microsoft signed last November with Novell, under which both sides promised not to sue users of each other's operating systems, might go down as the last overture of a Cold War that's about to turn hot. Red Hat has refused to sign such a deal.


While Microsoft has so far refrained from filing any suits, some of Ballmer's former patent lietenants are taking a more-agressive line against the open-source operating system. For Red Hat, this could be the beginning of a very long and costly legal struggle -- to be fought on several fronts. 



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