Intellectual property licensing firms IP Innovation and Technology Licensing Corporation have filed a lawsuit against Red Hat
for alleged patent infringements in their Linux distributions.
The legal case marks the first patent challenge against Linux distributors in court.
The software allegedly infringes the 5,072,412; 5,533,183 and 5,394,521 patents. They all describe an "user interface with multiple workspaces for sharing display system objects" and were issued between December 1991 and February 1995.
The suit was filed on 9 October in the district court of Eastern Texas. Judges in the area are known for favouring patent owners, causing many patent cases to be filed in the area.
The plaintiffs in the Novell and Red Hat case demand an injunction, prohibiting Novell and Red Hat from continuing the infringement of the 3 patents, as well as unspecified damages.
Both Novell and Red Hat have indemnification clauses in their user agreements, vowing to protect end users from patent claims. Users therefore can trust that they won't be affected by the suit.
A spokesperson from Novell said that the firm is evaluating its options and vowed to defend its interests. Red Hat didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Intellectual property licensing firms like Innovation and Technology Licensing Corporation exist for the sole purpose of licensing patents. Because they don't make any products of their own, they can't be targeted with countersuits, which traditionally has been the defence of choice against patent suits.
Firms targeted by these so-called patent trolls are often forced to settle. Microsoft earlier this year paid $521m (AUD$576m) to end a patent suit from Eolas. In another high profile case, Research in Motion paid $612m (AUD$676.8m) to end a patent suit from NTP.
The US Supreme Court earlier this year limited the power of patent trolls. Where a patent infringement would previously lead to an automatic injunction, the panel of judge ruled that such a harsh remedy was only required if the plaintiff produced a product that relied on the patent.
Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer last week predicted that Linux vendors soon would be targeted by patent holding companies. At the time he also cautioned that Red Hat users would have to compensate Microsoft for its patents. Microsoft claims that Linux infringes some of its patents.
The Linux Foundation denounced the latest threat. In an emailed statement, the groups executive director Jim Zemlin predicted that the patents would be defeated in a way similar to which the IBM and Novell defeated SCO.
"This case will aid those of us who are advocating the cause of patent reform by demonstrating the wasteful drain that the current process imposes on innovative activities. We are committed to continuing our vigorous support for meaningful amendment of the software patent laws," said Zemlin.