Open legal season on Microsoft

Redmond's lawyers face four separate suits simultaneously, including the resumption of the federal antitrust trial.

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Most people in the United States will be rolling out the barbecue grills and getting ready for a nice long summer this Memorial Day weekend -- but not Microsoft's legion of lawyers. They, most likely, will be cracking the books. Once the holiday is over, the Microsoft legal team is due in court -- or rather in a lot of courts, as different lawsuits accusing the software giant of unfair competitive practices rise to the top of judicial calendars everywhere.

The biggie -- the Department of Justice suit, which accuses Microsoft of violating federal antitrust laws by using its operating system monopoly to push its Web browser on consumers -- is scheduled to resume on June 1. The very next day, a smaller trial -- but with similar overtones of Redmond's bullying ways -- begins. The suit, filed by Bristol Technology, accuses Microsoft of illegally withholding the source code for new versions of Windows NT, thus preventing Bristol from upgrading its main product Wind/U, a program that enables software applications written for the Windows NT operating system to also run on Unix.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is expecting a judge to begin ruling this week on motions its lawyers filed in a suit brought by the tiny Utah software maker Caldera. Caldera has charged Microsoft with destroying the market for DR-DOS, a competitor to Microsoft's DOS, through illegal pricing and licensing agreements.

To kick things off, Microsoft has already been slapped on the wrist by the federal judge overseeing the Java case. Last year, Sun Microsystems sued Microsoft for breach of contract, claiming that Redmond used its licensed version of Sun's Java programming language to design a Windows-only "flavor" of Java incompatible with other flavors of Java. The judge ruled on Tuesday that Microsoft did indeed infringe Sun copyrights with Windows 98 and other software. The good news for Microsoft is that the ruling is only "tentative," and it goes to some lengths to ensure that Microsoft can offer "independently developed'' tools that do not comply with Sun's contract, so long as the tools don't infringe Sun copyrights or patents. Still, as the legal blockbuster summer season gets underway, it's got to hurt to start things off with a bad judicial review.

Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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