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Munich's Linux Plans - "LiMux" - Put On Hold

Gee, did Munich spit in the wind?

The city of Munich's vaunted "LiMux" project to move its 14,000 workers from Windows to Linux - a spit in the eye of Microsoft, whose CEO flew to Germany last year to try to save the account and couldn't, even though he came bearing handsome discounts - was put "auf Eis" - on ice - on Tuesday because it apparently infringes roughly 50 European software patents.

Needless to say, Munich was the biggest Windows-to-Linux upset ever, a showcase win for the Penguinistas who saw Microsoft reportedly uncut the cost of Linux and still lose, and however Munich goes so ultimately may Linux, though the Penguinistas don't think so.

Right now Munich's plans to put "LiMux" out for bid in the next few days are on hold. Supposedly it's temporary. Munich may be optimistic. In America they're saying Linux infringes 283 patents, an issue Munich hasn't started grappling with yet.

The source of all the angst is the Linux client that IBM and SuSE apparently spec'd out during the freebie migration analysis they did for the town.

The patents - which impact on LiMux's Mozilla browser and e-mail; its SUSE firewall and its use of grp, iproute, iptables, the openldap client, openssl, pam, sasl; its graphics and multimedia and their use of gimp, libjpeg, kdemultimedia, libmpeg3, libvorbis, x, freetype and KDE; its use of OpenOffice and PDF, and its backup, administration and networking and use of cpio, r(s)sh, the Samba client, nfs-utils and portmap - belong to Canon, Oracle, Sun, Postini founder Scott Petry, the Fraunhofer Institut, Brokat, Matsushita, BT, HP, Novell, NCR, Bull, Olivetti, Sony, France Telecom, Lake Technology Ltd, Taligent, AMD, Olympus Optical, Apple, Adobe, AT&T, Prolink, Hitachi, Dupont, Siemens, Ericsson, Cabletron, Teradata, Fujitsu, and of course Microsoft - among others.

In other words, it's stepping on a lot of toes and not all of them may be willing to sacrifice their IP on the altar of open source. Munich may be calling on Microsoft hat in hand one of these days.

See, the European Union is on the verge of adopting American-style software patent law this fall and harmonizing it across all its member nations, despite the fact that open source advocates may riot and take to the barricades if they do.

The patent prospect got Munich supporters worried. Worried enough for Jens Muehlhaus, an alderman from Germany's Green Party and an open source advocate, to file two motions last Friday calling on the mayor of Munich, who had pushed the city's migration to Linux, to contact the federal German government and between them figure out how the proposed EU software patent directive affects Munich's Linux project.

See, according to Florian Mueller, another open source advocate and adviser to MySQL, Europe's largest open source software house, a cursory search established that the Linux "base client" that the city of Munich was planning to install threads on more than 50 European software patents.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, an open source friendly, did the research. (Gee, imagine that, Microsoft didn't light the fuse.)

According to Mueller, Muehlhaus was afraid that if Munich went ahead, patent infringement assertions could put whole departments of city's administration out of commission or cost Munich a whole lot in licensing fees. And, like Deutsche Bank Research before him, he was concerned about the ability of open source software to meet Munich's needs if the patents hinder its future development.

Munich's CIO Wilhelm Hoegner was also worried. He said it's "indispensable" to find out what consequences the EU directive will have on open source software. Not finding out, he said, could be a "catastrophe for Munich's Linux migration project and for open source in general."

Currently software can't be patented in Europe unless it's part of a separate invention or process, and even then it depends on the country and local court interpretations. The European Parliament bill will make software easier to patent, a move that has outraged open source activists, who claim patents restrict innovation.

At LinuxWorld Conference & Expo this week Bruce Perens, the American open source activist, claimed that the delay was actually a piece of political theatre on the part of the Greens designed to derail the EU patent legislation.

Europe's Penguinistas are evidently hoping a Munich scare will rally public opinion and act as lever in their last-ditch lobbying of the European Parliament. Unless, of course, it backfires.

Europe's biggest technology companies like Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens, Philips, and Alcatel are pushing for the patent initiative and big companies generally win.

American companies own something like 75% of the patent already issued by the European Patent Office (EPO). Smaller European companies are afraid they won't be able to compete with the Americans. There's talk of "strategic patenting" and an "arms race" by the Americans.

The EPO has been granting software patents since 1998 apparently in violation of the patent laws under which the EPO itself was established and the pending EU legislation was drafted by a group of patent administrators close to the EPO.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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