A FAT Licensing Uproar?

Analysis
Microsoft’s recent decision to pursue a royalty-bearing licensing strategy, which includes its internally developed FAT Allocation Table (FAT) file system , is stirring up new theories in the technology world.

Where many industry watchers applauded the move by the world’s largest software company to open up its intellectual property,
others saw it as a move to put a stumbling block in the way of Linux, the open source operating system whose growth threatens the dominance of Windows.

Readers at popular online forum Slashdot.org weighed in with the claim that the licensing policy was the beginning of Microsoft’s efforts to shut down Linux. The newly-launched Public Patent Foundation is urging the United States U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to re-examine what it claims are “wrongly issued” patents, primarily in response to Microsoft’s new IP policy.

Like many operating systems , Linux uses the FAT file system technology to keep track of and transfer data from one location to another, whether it’s from one computer to another or from a flash memory card in a digital camera to the PC. It’s beneficial to users because it allows them to plug in a device without having to reformat it
every time they switch to another OS or device.

Linux support for FAT32, used in today’s systems, started with the
2.0.34 kernel.

According to the policy
letter

posted to its site, Microsoft isn’t making
anyone sign a licensing deal to use the technology, only those
manufacturers who want “to standardize the FAT file system
implementation in their products, and to improve file system
compatibility across a range of computing and consumer electronics
devices.” With the license, companies get some reference source code
and test specifications.

David Kaefer, Microsoft’s director of business development,
intellectual
property and licensing, stressed the voluntary nature of the FAT
license
if companies or individuals are only calling on this technology in
Windows.

“These companies are already covered by our software developer kit
program (SDK),” Kaefer said. “However, if they would like to build
their
own implementations of Windows services, then they may need a license.”

Commercial Linux vendor SuSE Linux isn’t worried about having to pay
for
a FAT license. Joseph Eckert, SuSE Linux spokesperson, said, “We are
only accessing FAT32 file systems, not using them. This licensing
program is of little interest to SuSE.”

Microsoft critics, however, point that the
technology has been around for nearly 20 years and question the decision to suddenly charge a quarter per unit or
$250,000 for using FAT, years after it became an industry standard.

Although Microsoft stands to make millions licensing expanded FAT compatibility for manufacturers, the policy wasn’t driven by the bottom line. Officials have said the licensing policy is not expected to have any material impact on its revenue outlook.

Kaefer said every IT company recognizes the need to balance a
royalty-free and royalty-based IP program. Microsoft itself licenses
technology from other companies, and asked several other companies what they thought the license was worth.

The focus of Microsoft’s IP program, Kaefer said, is to adopt the norms
that are already standard with IBM and Hewlett-Packard
, two companies that combined, hold tens of thousands
of
patents.

“While we won’t make significant money from this license, it will
offset
other costs and help fund future rounds of research and development,”
Kaefer said. “Many people have focused on the patent rights we are
granting through the license, but the FAT specification, sample code
and
test specs we provide also have value in their own right.”

Manufacturers likely won’t mind, according to Sean Wargo, director of
industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association. For the
large
companies, the capped $250,000 fee wouldn’t even mean a price boost for
consumers.

“That sounds low enough that the manufacturer may eat it,” he said.
“Memory’s already getting fairly inexpensive, so something at that cost
is probably a blip on the radar for consumers. It’s a one-time
adjustment that they wouldn’t even notice.”

The fact of the matter, however, is that FAT itself is not being
licensed, but technology that has been built up around the original
code. The license covers four patents, they are:

  • 5,579,517
    “Common name space for long and short filenames”
  • 5,745,902
    “Method and system for accessing a file using file names having
    different file name formats”
  • 5,758,352 “Common name space for
    long and short filenames”
  • 6,286,013 “Method and system for
    providing a common name space for long and short file names in an
    operating system”

All four of these patents deal with
the
virtual FAT , a system driver that acts as an interface
between an application and system’s FAT. One of the limitations of the
FAT file system technology is that you can only store files with
eight-letter words; VFAT allows for the longer file names we are used
to
today.

Even if Microsoft were to levy a charge against everyone, not just the
manufacturers, under the current licensing policy, it would only affect
the use of VFAT technology. Companies who wanted to continue using FAT
and avoid the license fees could do so by taking out the VFAT system
driver and forcing customers to come up with eight-letter filenames.

Joe Wilcox, Jupiter Research Microsoft analyst (Jupiter Research and
this Web site are owned by the same parent company), said the licensing
deal also doesn’t affect programmers that reverse-engineered a FAT
look-alike, but is for companies that want to increase the
compatibility
with Microsoft’s own FAT schema, nothing more.

News Around the Web