Wednesday, January 11, 2006

FAT Filesystem: Patent Upheld

Microsoft announced yesterday that the USPTO concluded that two patents covering their FAT filesystem are valid. This follows a previous pre-final ruling invalidating the patents.

The implications for this ruling are far-reaching. Most USB devices utilize the FAT filesystem as a standard for storing data. Linux and other free operating systems implement the FAT filesystem for compatibility with Windows and to read devices such as digital cameras and thumb-drives.

US Patent 5,579,517 was not issued to Microsoft until 1996 (despite prior art dating to at least 1988). Unless a court overturns the re-examination, Microsoft can collect royalties from all USB storage device makers until 2016, and, more importantly, can exclude Linux, BSD, et. al from including support for the FAT filesystem, rendering them largely useless for accessing such commonly used devices as digital cameras and other USB-attached storage. The patents also threaten the Samba file server, widely adopted as a free competitor to Microsoft's offerings.
Public Patent Foundation President Dan Ravicher said his organization disagreed with the Patent Office's conclusions and offered a broader critique.

"Microsoft has won a debate where they were the only party allowed to speak, in that the patent re-examination process bars the public from rebutting arguments made by Microsoft," he told CNET "We still believe these patents are invalid and that a process that gave the public equal time to present its positions would result in them being found as such."
Compatibility and interoperability are the foundations of competition in the technology sector, and this patent is a powerful example of how to destroy that foundation. If disruptive technologies like Linux and Samba can be eliminated through clever use of the patent system, what does that say about the subversion of the constitutionally defined purpose of the patent system, which is to promote the useful arts and sciences? We can hope that the new mechanisms proposed yesterday will aid the USPTO in rejecting this type of patent in the future.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why it is that large companies like Microsoft are given these venues without a public commentary process?

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

said: "Why it is that large companies like Microsoft are given these venues without a public commentary process?"

It isn't just large companies -- the USPTO does re-exams with its doors closed, and does not only not solicite outside commentary, but expressly disallows it.

This may change with some of the new Open Source - inspired changes the USPTO has recently given lip-service to, but only time will tell. The truth is that the USPTO is beholden to no one and actually makes money from their processes, meaning that they are very vulnerable to "regulatory capture" -- they are more likely to cater to the interests of patent holders (who give them money) than the interests of society and the public at large (who don't give them a dime).

10:14 PM  

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