September 30, 2004 11:33 AM PDT

Microsoft FAT patent falls flat

As part of a re-examination, the U.S. Patent Office has issued a preliminary rejection for a patent previously granted to Microsoft for a Windows file format.

The agency ruled that, based on existing inventions at the time, the ideas behind the FAT (File Allocation Table) patent would have been obvious and are therefore not subject to patent. Microsoft now has 90 days to respond to the filing and make its case for why the patent should be upheld.

The Patent Office's ruling, known as an "office action," is not final, since Microsoft has further opportunities to respond before an ultimate decision is made.

"It's just one substantive step in an ongoing process," said Mark Goldstein, a lawyer with the SoCal IP Law Group.

In a statement, the software giant predicted it will eventually prevail: "We understand that this is another step in the long process that assures high levels of patent quality. At this point, we have the opportunity to demonstrate why this file system innovation deserves patent protection and believe that the (patent office) will find these patents valid."

A representative added that the company looks forward to weighing in "with Microsoft's side of the story."

The little-known Public Patent Foundation had been leading the push for a re-examination. There had been concern by that group and others that Microsoft could use the patent to seek royalties from open-source software vendors. In June, the patent office agreed to a re-hearing.

"The Patent Office has simply confirmed what we already knew for some time now--Microsoft's FAT patent is bogus," Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, said in a statement.

The FAT file format is a common means of storing files not just on computers, but also on removable flash memory cards that are used in digital cameras and other devices. It is also used by the open-source Samba software that lets Linux and Unix computers exchange data with Windows computers, and by Linux to read and write files on Windows hard drives.

Some have worried that Microsoft may claim Linux infringes this or other Microsoft patents and that the software giant could someday seek royalties. Even the requirement of the smallest monetary compensation could threaten Linux which, under the terms of the General Public License, may not be distributed if it contains patented technology that requires royalty payments. Users and distributors of Linux have also faced legal threats from the SCO Group, which charges that the operating system infringes Unix copyrights it claims to hold.

Microsoft is already trying to license the technology to flash drive makers and manufacturers of devices, such as digital cameras, that use FAT. It is unclear how a final ruling could affect that effort, because the patent being re-examined is one of four that Microsoft licenses as part of its FAT file format program. The company also grants license to intellectual property that has not yet been patented, according to its Web site. Microsoft charges 25 cents per device (up to a maximum of $250,000) from makers of products that use the FAT format.

"I hope those companies that chose to take a license from Microsoft for the patent negotiated refund clauses so that they can get their money back," Ravicher said.

Microsoft said its licensing of the FAT technology has continued despite the patent challenge and that the company has signed new licensees beyond Lexar, its first, although Microsoft did not name those companies. A Lexar representative was not immediately available for comment.

Microsoft has been stepping up both its efforts to license its intellectual property as well as moving to file for more patents. Chairman Bill Gates said the company hopes to file 3,000 patent applications this year, up from a little more than 2,000 last year and 1,000 a year as recently as a few years ago.

10 comments

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Getting at least one of them rescinded is good news...
Does anyone know which patents these are?
Posted by (8 comments )
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Found them
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://patents.oncloud8.com/?pns=US5579517;US5745902;US5758352;US6286013" target="_newWindow">http://patents.oncloud8.com/?pns=US5579517;US5745902;US5758352;US6286013</a>

More details on the FAT File System and the Patent License can be found on Microsoft's webpage: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/ip/tech/fat.asp" target="_newWindow">http://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/ip/tech/fat.asp</a>
Posted by (8 comments )
Link Flag
Microsoft Oxygen OS
Soon Microsoft will come up with the next generation OS that breathes on oxygen. In preparation for that Microsoft will be filling for a patent for the breathing OS. Robot makers to include humans will have to pay a $20 per license fee for each lung that they possess.

Cheif Architec Bill Gate$
Posted by (2 comments )
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got that right
he'd charge us all to breathe if he could get away with it. He's a madman comparable to some of worst tyrannical dictators in world histroy.
Posted by phoobar (5 comments )
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Isn't it a little too late to file the patent?
FAT has been around for DECADES, and is pretty much the lingua franca format for cross-platform technologies used on PCs, Flash Cards, etc. etc. Hell, it's so common, even Macs support it!

To file a patent on such a widely used file format now is just plain greedy. Nobody files a patent for the fun of it (at least not corporations), and the fact that MS is selling out licensing fees for it makes it obvious that this is the main thrust of the filing.

Isn't there a time-limit to filing for a patent? After all, what is to prevent a drug company from releasing a wonder-drug, getting everyone to produce a generic equivalent to it, and then filing a patent so that they can sue for royalties for every pill sold to date?
Posted by Tex Murphy PI (165 comments )
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That would be stupid
you get a patent so you can charge 1000 dollars for a 1$ drug... you wouldnt make that much off liscencing fees
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
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The patent in question is from 1996.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
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Samba doesn't use FAT
As I commented last time you reported on this patent, Samba shares Unix/Linux filesystems and printers with Windows clients using SMB.

A /few/ Linux installations use FAT to read Windows/DOS floppy disks, Windows hard disk partitions, and directly-read memory cards, but this does not involve Samba.

Getting your facts wrong once is poor journalism. Getting your facts wrong again when someone has pointed it out to you is inexcusable.
Posted by duncangibb (7 comments )
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