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Linus Torvalds' testimony helped persuade judge to throw out Microsoft patent

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Linus Torvalds has said that a discussion he held on Usenet in the early 1990s helped persuade an ITC judge to declare a Microsoft patent invalid last year. The case is still being reviewed by the ITC.

Linus Torvalds Wikimedia
Linus Torvalds Wikimedia

Linux creator Linus Torvalds may no longer be giving advice to Amiga fans on Usenet, but his testimony on a pair of 20-year-old posts apparently led a judge to throw out one of Microsoft's patents. Torvalds told Wired that in fall 2011, he was called to provide testimony after Microsoft had sued Motorola for allegedly infringing several of its patents. Among them was patent 5,758,352 (or the '352 patent) from 1996, which covers a way to assign long filenames in systems designed for short ones. Motorola, however, found that Torvalds had been working on the problem years before. "Motorola had found this posting of mine about long filenames used in a compatible manner with short [filenames]," Torvalds says, "and it predated the Microsoft patent by three years."

As a result, Torvalds was called in to be deposed by Microsoft's lawyers. "It was actually pretty annoying, just because the way they tried to cast doubt on what the date was. The lawyer went on for about five minutes: ‘Are you really sure about this date thing?’" Microsoft wouldn't comment on the case, but Torvalds says his testimony helped convince a US International Trade Commission judge that Motorola wasn't infringing the '352 patent. Eventually, Motorola was found to infringe a different patent that covers remote synchronization of meeting requests via email.

The case is still being reviewed by a full ITC panel, which said it would be specifically hearing arguments regarding the validity of the '352 patent. Torvalds' deposition is a tiny part of a huge case, but it's a reminder of his wide influence in the tech world.