NTFS Licensee Reports Microsoft Threat, Apology

The battle between open-source advocates and the world's most powerful software company veered into "he said, she said" territory during the fall of 2000. The brouhaha began in September, when tiny Timpanogas Research Group (TRG), a software firm in Orem, Utah, announced that it had given up its NTFS source-code license because of threatening messages from Microsoft. TRG was using the source code for a variety of projects, including a port of NTFS to Linux. TRG CEO Jeff Merkey—who was involved in a similar spat with Novell—said that Microsoft threatened to sue TRG for violating its intellectual property rights involving NTFS.

"Microsoft has threatened us with litigation due to our support of Linux NTFS development, and we have dissolved our NTFS licensing agreements with Microsoft in response to \[its\] demands that \[we\] cease to support Linux development," Merkey wrote in a posting to Kernel Traffic, a Linux kernel resource. "Microsoft demanded that we delete any and all NTFS tools we had been providing to customers based on \[Microsoft's\] intellectual property."

Merkey noted that Microsoft's biggest concern was that TRG would use the NTFS source code to develop a product (i.e., full NTFS support in Linux) that Microsoft hadn't approved. A Merkey post quoted a story by Pat Christian of the Orem Daily Herald, in which Christian explained that TRG's development involved Microsoft intellectual property and that like a lot of software companies, Timpanogas was also working with other operating-system developers that Microsoft considers competitors, developing Timpanogas network products that would run with Linux.

Companies that license Microsoft's source code must meet stringent security requirements regarding use of the code and disclosure of its contents. Such companies can use source code only in projects that Microsoft approves. Therefore, TRG's work with Linux must remain separate from its work with NTFS. Merkey claimed that TRG has never provided the Linux community with any NTFS source code. Instead, the company provided tools to help Linux users fix NTFS partitions under Linux.

Merkey added that a Microsoft product manager had accused him of conspiring with Linux creator Linus Torvalds and of participating in other nefarious dealings. Microsoft has some precedent for these claims, however. In 1997, Novell sued Merkey's company for stealing its intellectual property. (TRG's three founders—including Merkey—are former Novell employees who developed a product they originally failed to complete while working for Novell.) Merkey admitted that Novell had sued his company, but noted that the lawsuit was settled. He defended TRG's adherence to the NTFS source-code license.

Within weeks of his original post, Merkey reported that a Microsoft attorney had issued an apology and ensured that no lawsuit was forthcoming, and TRG quickly returned to work on its Linux port and other NTFS tools. "I will again be able to offer tools to repair NTFS partitions \[from Linux\]," Merkey told Kernel Traffic readers. "Microsoft has apologized and withdrawn \[its\] statements. We are very happy this ended on a happy note, instead of in court. Microsoft will take no action against us for NTFS development on Linux, which can now proceed without concern."

For its part, Microsoft claims that it never threatened TRG with a lawsuit. In any event, the problem seems to be solved, but TRG's experience might simply be the first of many clashes between Microsoft and companies that are working to extend the reach of Linux.

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