Just What's Inside Microsoft's New Stash of Novell Patents?

Last Updated Nov 22, 2010 6:27 PM EST

After long deliberation, Novell (NOVL) finally settled on a buyer for itself: Attachmate, an IT management product vendor, for $2.2 billion. But Attachmate doesn't get all of Novell, because 882 of its patents go to a consortium organized by Microsoft (MSFT).

That has to make people in the Unix and free and open source software (FOSS) worlds nervous. After all, there has been rumbling between such people and Microsoft before. But what should make them, and everyone else, really nervous is that it's currently impossible to tell exactly what is being transferred because, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office database, Novell has a total of 461 granted patents. So under whose name are the other 421?

The consortium is called CPTN Holdings. According to a Delaware Division of Corporations filing, CPTN was formed on November 4, 2010. In other words, this deal was likely settled by the end of October and Microsoft formed this consortium -- though there are no details about other companies in it -- in early November to undertake the transaction. The real mystery, thought, is what patents that Microsoft and friends get. Granted patents listed with the USPTO as assigned to Novell number 461. The oldest is patent 5,157,663, granted on October 20, 1992 for a fault tolerant computer system. Note that it doesn't necessarily mean all fault tolerant computer systems, but who knows how broadly it might apply. The newest is 7,831,840, filed for in January 2005 and granted on November 9, 2010, for System and method for codifying security concerns into a user interface.

Remember that Novell was an early force in networking. Some of these patents look as though they might cover some basic aspects of such things as:

It may be that none of these has any practical implications for what companies currently do, but with so many patents, it certainly seems like a nice little IP warchest.

In addition, there are another 287 patent applications. It's unlikely that all will be granted, but if included in the transfer, the ones eventually approved could give Microsoft and however else takes part in the consortium access to patents that could last nearly another two decades.

Add those together, and you still end up with only 748 granted patents or patent applications, which at a minimum leaves another 134 unaccounted for. I have a call in with Novell in hopes of straightening out the question. But even if clarified, it wouldn't be surprising to see a lot of IP lawyers with technology clients searching through the list to see just how much trouble those companies might be in.

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Image: Flickr user Alexandre Dulaunoy, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.