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Red Hat, Novell Win Open Source Patent Case

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Think you can scare Linux vendors into submission with a patent challenge? Think again. Linux vendors Novell (NASDAQ: NOVL) and Red Hat (NYSE: RHT) have won a patent verdict in a Texas jury trial.

In an October 2007 lawsuit, intellectual property firm IP Innovation LLC had claimed that the Linux vendors were infringing on its U.S. Patent No. 5,072,412, which describes a “User Interface with Multiple Workspaces for Sharing Display System Objects.” The company had been seeking damages “in no event less than a reasonable royalty.”

However, the jury in the trial found that patents were, in fact, invalid.

For Linux’s supporters, the win is a proof point that open source OS vendors can work together on legal issues and face down patent lawsuits.

“The jury’s decision shows that the open source community can stand up to coercion based on bad software patents, and that juries can see through arguments based on FUD,” said Rob Tiller, vice president and assistant general counsel for intellectual property at Red Hat, referring to the common acronym of “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.”

As to why the Linux vendors prevailed in the dispute, it all has to with innovation and invention. Among the reasons that make a patent valid is the need for it to be an invention or a new method of some sort that did not exist in a prior form.

“The claims asserted by the plaintiffs were deemed invalid based on the existence of extensive prior art,” Tiller told “In addition, the jury found that the patents-in-suit were invalid because of improper inventorship.”

The patents held by IP Innovation date back to 1991 and were originally held by Xerox, which later sold them to the IP firm. Patent No. 5,072,412 in particular, includes references that date back to 1984, when IBM received U.S. Patent No. 4,484,302. That patent protected a “Single screen display system with multiple virtual display having prioritized service programs and dedicated memory stacks.”

While Red Hat and Novell compete against each other for customer dollars and market share, in the issue of their legal defense against IP Innovation, the two firms actually joined forces.

“Red Hat and Novell were represented by the same legal team from the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher,” Tiller said.

That’s also something of a change considering that the two have not always seen eye to eye on Linux patent issues. Novell had had a patent covenant with Microsoft since 2006, providing protections for what Microsoft has described as potential intellectual property infringements in Linux. In contrast, Red Hat has no such deal, which has led Microsoft to allege that Red Hat in some way owes Microsoft.

From beginning to end, it took nearly three years for the IP Innovation patent lawsuit to be settled, which as it turns out, isn’t all that long.

“This seems like a long time, but this case was not unusually drawn out,” Tiller said. “Obviously, that’s an unfortunate commentary on the way the system normally works.”

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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