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11/16/2009
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Does New Microsoft Patent Infringe On Unix Program Sudo?

Some in the open source community suspicious of Microsoft's intent

A patent granted to Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) has stirred up worry that world's largest software company wants to claim Unix's "sudo" as its own.

Sudo is a Unix program used to raise a user's privilege level to accomplish tasks that require administrative privileges. It allows a user to temporarily execute commands as the root user.

Microsoft's "Rights elevator" patent describes a way to "enable a user to elevate his or her rights," which of course is what "sudo" does.

This apparent similarity has led some in the open source community, cognizant of Microsoft's past hostility toward open source software, to ask whether the company plans to demand a patent licensing fee from open source vendors.

Microsoft may wish it could do so. If so, it won't say: The company declined to comment.

In any event, the "Rights elevator" patent isn't likely to provide Microsoft with the opportunity to seek such fees.

Michael B. Einschlag, a partner at Rosenlaw & Einschlag, which specializes in open source and intellectual property law, said Microsoft's "Right elevator" patent is narrowly framed to cover the graphic user interface used to present computer privilege elevation.

"It's a description of how to present the information to the user," he said. "It doesn't cover the concept of how the user is trying to accomplish some task."

After reviewing documents covering the patent's history, Einschlag pointed to three specific identifiers that the patent's examiner concluded were necessary for Microsoft's invention to qualify as a patentable innovation: frequency of use; association with the current user; and indication of sufficient but not unlimited rights.

"Fundamentally, it's something to make it easy for users to understand how to upgrade their rights," he said.

In short, suspicions about this patent are overblown.

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