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Novell wins bid to pursue ’90s-era Microsoft antitrust case

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These days, the .doc suffix is synonymous with Microsoft Word—but did you know, back in the Dark Ages, it used to be synonymous with WordPerfect? Some people still do, and now an appeals court has reversed a lower court’s summary judgement and cleared the way for Novell to pursue an antitrust claim against Microsoft to squeezing WordPerfect out of the productivity applications market back in the 1990s.

The legal tangles in the case date all the way back to 1996, by which point Microsoft Office was already the 800-pound gorilla of the business productivity market. In 1996, Novell sold a product called DR-DOS to Caldera Systems, along with a lawsuit against Microsoft that alleged Microsoft was leveraging its dominant position in the operating system market. (Yes, we just flashed back to Windows 3.1.) With that sale, Novell also transfered the right to sue Microsoft over existing antitrust issues. Some four years later, Caldera got a $280 million settlement from Microsoft, a portion of which was paid to Novell.

In 2004, Novell filed a separate antitrust case against Microsoft claiming the Redmond company had used its dominance in the operating system and business productivity markets to unfairly squeeze WordPerfect aside, n large parts to to leveraged bundling agreements with computer manufactures. In 2008, the Supreme Court refused to hear Microsoft’s appeal of the case, and just last year, a court granted Microsoft a summary judgement, saying Novell had no standing to sue Microsoft over antitrust matters regarding WordPerfect, since Novell had transferred rights to sue for antitrust complaints to Caldera back in 1996.

The new appeals court ruling, however, finds that Novell’s 1996 agreement with Caldera applied to a different set of products than Novell’s suit against Microsoft regarding WordPerfect, and Novell is therefore free to pursue the single antitrust complaint against Microsoft related to WordPerfect.

“We are disappointed with the Fourth Circuit’s decision to reverse in part the district court’s summary judgment ruling which dismissed these very old claims, although we are pleased that at this point only one part of one of Novell’s claims remains,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement distributed via email.

Novell has not yet commented on the appeal ruling or its plans for the case.

Attachment just completed its $2.2 billion acquisition of Novell.