Licensing Under Fire
Court decrees Microsoft can't sublicense patents; SQL Server 7.0 developers may have to pay fees.Software licensing, ever a sticky subject, has of late been getting stickier still for Microsoft Corp. SQL Server customers. In February, a Washington state Superior Court judge decreed that some SQL Server 7.0 developers could be liable to pay additional licensing fees, stating that Microsoft could not sublicense patents of another companyTimeline Inc.to SQL Server customers. The Timeline technology in question involves two SQL Server components: a database within SQL Server known as the analyst services cube, and DTS (Data Transformation Services), which controls data import and transfer into the relational database side of SQL. According to the court, every Microsoft customer, including ISVs, VARs and corporate end users, who wishes to customize SQL Server by adding code or products to meet user needs would need a license from Timeline to do so. The potential economic benefit to Timeline could be staggering, the court said, in that it would entail the future sale of licenses to essentially all Microsofts SQL Server customers.
Microsoft has been quiet on the issue. Jim Desler, a public relations manager for the Redmond, Wash., company, said Microsoft is dealing with the issue on a case-by-case basis as its customers and partners inquire into it.
Timeline officials demur. CEO Charlie Osenbaugh (pictured) said there is a "small subset of users" likely to be liable for patent infringement: those who use the two technologies in questionthe analyst services cube and DTSand those who write code that provides the same features and functions. Osenbaugh said that the company hasnt yet figured out how to get its fees from users and others involved in the Microsoft case but that officials want to come up with "a sane approach" to getting its licensing fees paid. "We dont want to put [users] through the pain and cost of switching databases," said Osenbaugh, in Bellevue, Wash. "Were not out to gouge people." According to Osenbaugh, the company has discussed a number of options, including an amnesty program in which it would publish a rate schedule for those who step forward voluntarily. Theres one thing Microsoft officials, Timeline officials and lawyers agree on: SQL Server users should comb through code to determine if theyre at risk of being dragged into court. "End users need to determine if they have an infringement problem," said Bob Rohde, of the Seattle law firm Rohde & Van Kampen PLLC, which was retained by Timeline in the Microsoft court case. If companies determine there may be grounds for patent infringement, Microsoft officials are advising them to take it up with Timeline. "If a company looks at their technology and thinks theres an issue, they should have a patent review and discuss it with Timeline," Tullis said. "Were telling them that on a case-by-case basis." As far as who the first target of litigation might be, Rohde said he will be meeting with his client in mid-April to assess "whos out there, whos infringing and who hasnt taken a license." That assessment is fairly simple to make, he said, often involving poking around in online documentation and downloading manuals to determine if infringing technology is incorporated into companies software. "My clients got a fairly good idea of whos out there using his technology," Rohde said.