Novell, Red Hat Win Joint Patent Battle

Back in 2007, an outfit called IP Innovation LLC filed a patent infringement lawsuit, claiming that Linux vendors were infringing on patents it owns—including U.S. patent 5,072,412 covering “User interface with multiple workspaces for sharing display system objects.” Now, a Texas jury has ruled in favor of Red Hat and Novell, finding the patents at the center of the suit was invalid because of extensive prior art.

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The case is notable not so much because the patent was defeated, but because Linux vendors who are serious rivals in the marketplace joined forces to fight the case. The victory is being hailed by the open source community as a major win—and yet more evidence that Linux can stand up to patent challenges. Red Hat and Novell were represented by the same legal team—surprising because Novell and Red Hat in many ways represent opposite ends of the open source community. For instance, Novell has entered into a broad patent agreement with Microsoft to protect its customers from any patent litigation Microsoft might bring against Linux. Red Hat has never made that kind of deal—and it’s been about four years since Novell signed on the dotted line and Microosft has yet to mount a direct patent challenge to Linux.

“This is the result we expected and we are gratified that the jury recognized the tremendous innovative value of open source software,” said Red Hat executive FP Michael Cunningham, in a statement. “The jury knocked out three invalid patents that were masquerading as new and important inventions, when they were not.”

The IP Innovation patents go all the way back to 1991—but IP Innovation didn’t come up with them on their own, instead buying them from Xerox. Red Hat and Novell were able to demonstrate substantial prior art that preceded Xerox’s original patent filings: one of the requirements for patent protection is that the application must describe a new method or process that did not previously exist.

“We are very pleased that the jury reached a verdict in favor of Linux and of open source,” said Novell’s VP for legal affairs Jim Lundberg, in a statement. “We hope this verdict sends a strong and unequivocal message to others that Novell and the open source community will vigorously defend any unsupported attacks on Linux and on open source innovation. ”