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MS patent looks just like Unix command, critics howl

'Sudo for dummies'

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Microsoft has won a patent that covers functionality closely resembling security features that have been at the heart of Unix for more than two decades and more recently been folded into the Linux and Mac operating systems.

Patent 7,617,530 describes system software that "presents a user interface in response to a task being prohibited based on a user's current account not having a right to permit the task." The interface includes "an authenticator [that] comprises a password, and the authenticator region comprises a data-entry field configured to receive the password."

To Linux defenders at Groklaw, the claims describe nothing more than the sudo command that's been a core part of Unix since 1980 and dates back even earlier to the mainframe days. The feature, which has more recently been rolled into Linux and Mac OSes, is designed to prevent unauthorized commands from being issued by requiring users to enter a password before they can be run.

"It's sudo," Groklaw argues here. "With a GUI. Sudo for Dummies. That's what it is."

Technology publication The H says that interpretation "appears to be incorrect" and it cites a patent Microsoft was granted in 2004 for sudo-like functionality. Instead, the site says the Microsoft patent issued this week appears to cover the functionality of PolicyKit, which is used to fine tune user permissions for various Linux systems.

Microsoft's patent comes as the US Supreme Court wrestles with the issue of business methods, such as those included in software, and whether they qualify for patent protection. Critics contend only physical inventions should be eligible, while a large swath of technology companies maintain that software-driven features such as Amazon's one-click checkout and Priceline's reverse auctions are fair game.

According to Groklaw, the earliest reference Microsoft's application made to sudo is from 1997. Critics have long maintained the the US Patent and Trademark Office fails to adequately take into account prior inventions that render a patented technology obvious or non-novel. But prior art is in the eye of the beholder, which is why software patents will continue to clog court dockets for years to come. ®

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