Defending Open Source

IBM granting access to 500 software patents to the open-source community was a good start. Now Big Blue must assemble a consortium of other IP powerhouses with an interest in defending the open-source development model.

IBM, again playing its role as the "friendly giant"of the open-source community, recently granted access to 500 software patents to any project that releases its code under an Open Source Initiative-approved license.

While IBMs unshackled intellectual property isnt likely, on its own, to spur much new open-source development, it will help put significant open-source projects on more stable ground. For instance, one patent in question applies to the use of dynamic libraries, technology that is already used heavily in Linux and just about every other operating system.

The open-source community can certainly use the stability—over the last couple of years, the songs of the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt chorus have grown appreciably louder concerning free software.

At last falls LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, open-source risk mitigation provider OSRM announced that the Linux kernel, the centerpiece of the open-source movement, contains 283 potential patent violations.

SCOs legal adventures, even if destined to fail, have forced companies running Linux to ask whether they could be targeted individually with IP-infringement suits.

Whether or not this threat ever materializes, its tough to ask companies to completely ignore this risk.

Meanwhile, Sun CEO Scott McNealy and others have exploited these fears for competitive gain by suggesting that the only true shelter from these threats lies under the IP portfolio umbrella of large software vendors.

The fact is that the open-source development model is completely incompatible with software patents. The typical open-source project lacks the resources to seek out which patents it might infringe, let alone to pay license fees for the use of patented ideas, not only itself but for all future parties to whom the open-sourced code will be distributed.

And yet world governments, including our own, are becoming increasingly generous with the patents they grant. To receive an exclusive right to what too frequently amounts to obvious, unoriginal ideas, it seems that applicants need only ask.

With limited popular will for reform, however, we dont expect to see the intellectual land-grab tide ebb any time soon.

Instead, IBMs patent announcement points the way toward what could become a promising workaround in which open-source projects may receive patent defense through the same sort of no-fire agreements that protect proprietary software products.

While we applaud this step, IBM must go further, perhaps by assembling a consortium of other IP powerhouses with an interest in defending the open-source development model, a consortium thats prepared not only to grant access to some of its patents for open-source projects, but also to pledge to use its patents to actively defend open source.

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