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IP Innovation LLC: Patsy or Proxy?

Oct 12, 2007, 22:30 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

For the record, (and I realize that I might be opening myself to calls of "naive") I am not 100 percent convinced that this pioneering patent infringement lawsuit is a direct result of Microsoft's planning.

I will concede that Pamela Jones at Groklaw did some excellent digging to find two really suspicious-looking connections between the patent-litigation happy IP Innovation LLC and our favorite monopolist, and I will really not be surprised if these connections do turn out to be legitimate controlling puppet strings from Redmond.

I am resisting, however, slapping the accusation on Microsoft right out of the gate. Here's why...

First, in the world of IT, it's a little bit hard to find any company without some sort of connection to Microsoft. Granted, this isn't six degrees of separation--it is a very close connection, and I believe the most compelling evidence that Redmond is playing a hand in this litigation.

The thing about the timing with Ballmer's statements, though, is not enough for me. First, with Linux being a multi-billion dollar industry, Ballmer's implication that someone would have to cough up some dough for Linux' alleged patent infringements is really about as insightful as telling someone in London that it's going to be foggy at least one day next year. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and sadly Microsoft isn't the only greedy corporation out there.

It is also quite possible that Ballmer knew specifically that this case was coming--gossip travels fast in this industry. For instance, I've known about some big announcements in the past long before they were publicly known. It's the way things are in this business. It's conceivable that Microsoft was aware this was coming, but knowing something versus being at fault for something are two different things.

The big three reasons I am not convinced Redmond is directly involved in this suit is the nature of the suit itself. First, it's going after Red Hat and Novell directly--not their customers, which runs a little counter to Ballmer's ravings. Second, Novell was named, which on the surface seems counterintuitive. You think Microsoft would sue its own partner? )Well, actually, they probably would--let me put that on hold for a second.) Third, the patent being used seems to be some old Xerox Parq patent that should be easy to demonstrate prior art. I would have expected a Microsoft-run effort to be a little more damaging.

Now, with all that said, I am going to take the other side of these arguments, because they can also be evidence for--not against--Microsoft's involvement.

First, suing Red Hat and Novell directly could be a Microsoft plan because after the trial run of SCO v. The Planet, Redmond would have certainly learned that suing customers of Linux companies stirs up all manner of trouble from within and without the open source community. Sue Novell and Red Hat via proxy, and Redmond avoids waking the sleeping giants of IBM's and Sun's patent portfolios. (If this sounds like a certain Cold War-era brush war to you, you're not alone.)

Suing Novell seems silly on the surface, but when I thought about it, it seemed the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how well Microsoft will protect its buddy Novell from these sorts of lawsuits. If we hear an announcement from either company in the next few weeks about Microsoft pledging its legal support to Novell, then I will be convinced this lawsuit was all a set-up to make Novell's Linux look good versus Red Hat's Linux.

Finally, a weaker suit plays into the first two points above. If Microsoft-through-proxy can damage Red Hat/strengthen Novell enough, having a weaker suit will make it much more simpler to pull the plug when the time comes.

I realize I may have argued myself out of my original point, but what I have tried to do here is highlight why I am honestly not sure which side to come down on. Occam's Razor pushes me over to the simpler this-is-just-a-patent-troll explanation. Our collective experience with Microsoft tends to push me towards the more complicated conspiracy theory.

Who the real players in this game are is a question that will take some time to be answered. My mind is not made up.

For now.