Sun Criticized for Limitations on Patent Release

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2005-02-07 Print this article Print

Sun officials concede that the language in their Common Development and Distribution License restricts the use of Sun patents to projects under the CDDL.

A week after Sun Microsystems Inc. touted its release of some 1,600 Solaris software patents, the company is fielding criticism for limiting the use of those patents to OpenSolaris project developers.

Despite claims that they had significantly trumped IBM, which last month released 500 software patents to any developer working on an approved project, Sun officials last week conceded that the language in their CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) restricts the use of Sun patents to projects under the CDDL.

Click here to read about IBMs patent giveaway.
"It is not Suns intent to sue members of the open-source community at large, but rather to provide protection for developers working with OpenSolaris technology," said Tom Goguen, vice president of Suns operating platforms group, in Santa Clara, Calif. "In contrast, IBM and others have offered only pledges covering a relatively small and mostly irrelevant set of patents."

Sun executives said the company is committed to building the OpenSolaris community and to protecting its members. To that end, the CDDL includes both a Patent Grant and Patent Peace structure. "As a legal device, these structures are much stronger than pledges and typically more relevant, as they cover the patents directly associated with technology embodied in the source code," Goguen said.

Some in the community have called for a public and written pledge from Sun that removes any legal liability should developers use the patented technology. So far, Sun has not released such a pledge.

While the CDDL does not permit mingling its code with code under the GNU GPL (General Public License)—which governs Linux—a pledge that allows freely granted patents could enable higher-level sharing and let programmers mine Solaris for ideas.

Bob Sutor, vice president of standards for IBM, welcomed Suns decision to open its patents but said the big difference between the two patent moves is that Sun is not pledging its patents for use in any open-source project, as IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., had done.

"If you want to use these on Linux, you are out of luck," Sutor said. "By restricting things to CDDL, they have not gone the whole 10 yards to support the open-source use of these. This is a shame because it was a good opportunity to do so."

Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds agreed, saying that he would have liked Suns patent grant to be broader and would have preferred Sun use an existing OSI-approved license rather than create the new CDDL.

Eben Moglen, general counsel for the Free Software Foundation and a board member of the Public Patent Foundation, said Sun is trying to prevent the mingling of code licensed under the CDDL and the GPL. "I believe that they will be successful in continuing to hold to that goal," Moglen said.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.
Peter Galli has been a financial/technology reporter for 12 years at leading publications in South Africa, the UK and the US. He has been Investment Editor of South Africa's Business Day Newspaper, the sister publication of the Financial Times of London.

He was also Group Financial Communications Manager for First National Bank, the second largest banking group in South Africa before moving on to become Executive News Editor of Business Report, the largest daily financial newspaper in South Africa, owned by the global Independent Newspapers group.

He was responsible for a national reporting team of 20 based in four bureaus. He also edited and contributed to its weekly technology page, and launched a financial and technology radio service supplying daily news bulletins to the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which were then distributed to some 50 radio stations across the country.

He was then transferred to San Francisco as Business Report's U.S. Correspondent to cover Silicon Valley, trade and finance between the US, Europe and emerging markets like South Africa. After serving that role for more than two years, he joined eWeek as a Senior Editor, covering software platforms in August 2000.

He has comprehensively covered Microsoft and its Windows and .Net platforms, as well as the many legal challenges it has faced. He has also focused on Sun Microsystems and its Solaris operating environment, Java and Unix offerings. He covers developments in the open source community, particularly around the Linux kernel and the effects it will have on the enterprise.

He has written extensively about new products for the Linux and Unix platforms, the development of open standards and critically looked at the potential Linux has to offer an alternative operating system and platform to Windows, .Net and Unix-based solutions like Solaris.

His interviews with senior industry executives include Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Linus Torvalds, the original developer of the Linux operating system, Sun CEO Scot McNealy, and Bill Zeitler, a senior vice president at IBM.

For numerous examples of his writing you can search under his name at the eWEEK Website at


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