RealTime IT News

Microsoft, Samsung Cross Bridge Over GPL

Microsoft  announced today that it has entered into a broad cross-licensing agreement with South Korean electronics maker Samsung.

The deal, which Microsoft said is patterned after the agreement it struck with Linux vendor Novell  last November, may pave the way for greater interoperability between open source and patented software in the future, the company said.

Under terms of the agreement, Microsoft will gain access to Samsung's patent portfolio relating to digital media and computer-related inventions; Samsung, for its part, will have the right to use Microsoft's patents in its products -- both those that use proprietary software, as well as those using Linux-based products.

The last provision is important because it means that Microsoft won't sue Samsung in the event that the electronics maker uses Linux code written under the General Public License  (GPL) that unintentionally infringes on Microsoft patents.

According to David Kaefer, general manager of intellectual property licensing at Microsoft, the agreement is a way for Microsoft and Samsung to mutually indemnify each other for inadvertent patent infringements they may have committed over the years, much like Novell and Microsoft indemnified each other last November.

The Novell deal "articulated a new legal model for transferring patent rights in a manner that respected the GPL, and it really built a bridge that didn't exist before," Kaefer told internetnews.com. The Samsung agreement "is evidence that the bridge is working for somebody else besides Novell."

Previously, said Kaefer, it had been difficult to figure out how to cross-license between closed source and open source software. This agreement "suggests that software patents and open source can work together, if not in harmony, then at least cooperatively. They're not things that are mutually exclusive," he said.

Kaefer said that patents are the currency of trade in a world where technology companies have overlapping products and interdependent functionality. "A lot of these IP agreements are some of the foundation that's driving some of the joint ventures you see happening," he said.

The Novell deal is not without its detractors, and many observers believe that the most recent draft of GPL 3 was written in such a way as to thwart such deals in the future.

While the Samsung agreement helps Microsoft advance its argument for interoperability between open source and proprietary software, it should also help Microsoft accelerate product development in its consumer electronics and device businesses. And because it indemnifies Microsoft for use of GPL, it may help its server business, as well.

Kaefer said that because the value of some patents cannot be predicted, the companies have also put in place mechanisms allowing for future monetary payments as compensation for their respective portfolios, pending certain conditions that are not being made public.

Microsoft has also announced similar agreements with NEC, Fuji-Xerox, Seiko-Epson and Nortel over the past 12 months.