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The proposed operating-system migration of the City of Munich's 14,000 desktops from Microsoft to Linux was placed in jeopardy Friday, when a Munich alderman petitioned the Bavarian city's mayor to examine the status of software patents in the European Community.
The issue was raised by Green Party Alderman Jens Muehlhaus, who warned that patent issues could grind some of the city's departments to a halt in the future. The issue involves a proposed directive on software patents that is being considered by various European governments, including Germany, France, and the U.K.
"The threat is this: a patent owner could send a cease-and-desist order against the City of Munich," said Florian Mueller, a software entrepreneur and spokesman for the Green Party there. Mueller noted that the European patent situation is "a grey area" that should be clarified.
The Munich IT installations have been the subject of a fierce battle between Microsoft, on the one hand, and IBM and Linux advocates, on the other. Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer interrupted a ski trip in Switzerland a year and a half ago to visit Munich in a vain attempt to keep the city's IT operation in the Windows fold.
After a yearlong test, the city last month decided to drop Microsoft as its captive software supplier and adopt open-source software. The changeover--worth several millions dollars--is not expected to be completed until 2009. The contract will first be put out to bid.
Mueller said the software-patent landscape in Europe is murky, with different countries and different political parties within those countries voicing varying opinions and approaches to software patents. In 1974, the European Patent Convention--an independent body--decided that computer software and mathematical logic could not be patented, Mueller said, adding that thousands of software programs have nevertheless been patented using other approaches.
Alderman Muehlhaus, who is a supporter of open-source software, is concerned that patent issues could hinder the future operation of the city's IT facilities, Mueller said. The long range fear is that the EU would pass legislation governing patents that could come back to haunt computer-software markets. "It's still a very inconsistent picture," said Mueller of the overall software-patent setting in Europe.
Mueller, who also represents European open-source database firm MySQL AB, added that the chief information officer of the City of Munich has expressed concern over the issue, saying that failure to address the patent issue now could be "a catastrophe" for the city's Linux-migration effort and for open-source software in general.
The migration effort is scheduled to involve moving PCs from Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer to OpenOffice and Mozilla, respectively. According to press reports, IBM has been working with Novell's SuSE Linux to craft a proposal for the city.