This week at San Franciscos LinuxWorld, Open Source Development Labs, a global consortium dedicated to accelerating the adoption of Linux, announced the OSDL patent commons project.
The OSDL patent commons is meant to provide a central location for open-source-friendly software patents and patent pledges.
“The OSDL patent commons project is designed to increase the utility and value of the growing number of patent pledges and promises in the past year by providing a central repository where intellectual property can be held for the benefit of all of us,” said Stuart Cohen, CEO of OSDL.
While many companies, such as IBM, Nokia, Novell, Red Hat and Sun Microsystems have opened some of their patents to the open-source community to one degree or another, there has been no single, reliable site where developers can access information about these patents.
“Our goal is to make it easier for developers and industry to take advantage of the good work of vendors, individuals and organizations who may wish to pledge patents and intellectual property in support of the community,” Cohen said.
In addition, the OSDL maintains that for many developers, the administrative and logistical challenges posed by granting individual licenses to the growing open-source community can be a barrier to the formal licensing of patents.
At least one developer, OSDL employee and Linux creator Linus Torvalds, agreed.
“Software patents are a huge potential threat to the ability of people to work together on open source,” Torvalds said in a statement.
“Making it easier for companies and communities that have patents to make those patents available in a common pool for people to use is one way to try to help developers deal with the threat,” he said.
In addition, OSDL said it believes that developers can be certain that patents contributed to the OSDL patent commons project will not be enforced against them on open-source software.
At this time, the patent commons project is still in the planning stages.
The current plan is to create a library and database that aggregates open-source-friendly patent pledges made by companies. This library will also collect other potential IP (intellectual property) legal defenses, such as the indemnification programs offered by vendors of open-source software.
For example, Hewlett-Packard Co. offers indemnification for Linux users who use Linux bought through HP on HP hardware.
The project will also contain a collection of software patent licenses and software patents, both issued and pending, that are held for the benefit of the open-source community.
“OSDL is the ideal steward for such an important legal initiative as the patent commons project,” said Eben Moglen, chair of the Software Freedom Law Center.
“No matter what your stand on software patents, and I oppose them, I call on developers to contribute to the OSDL patent commons project because there is strength in numbers and when individual contributions are collected together it creates a protective haven where developers can innovate without fear,” Moglen said.
Other patent opponents, like Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, agreed that the OSDLs plan is a good one.
“I agree with Ebens comments completely,” Ravicher said.
Not all reactions have been positive, however.
Florian Mueller, founder of the NoSoftwarePatents.com Web site, a leading opposition site to patents in the European Union, said he looked on the OSDLs announcement “with constructive caution.”
“It will only be a true protective shield if they gather patents that they can use to counter-sue the enemies of open source,” Mueller said.
“The software patent game is like the Cold War: The only thing that protects you is the concept of mutually assured destruction.”
“The patent pledges that IBM and Sun made added absolutely nothing to the retaliatory potential of open source. Those were just PR plays, but what the OSDL has announced could be much more meaningful,” Mueller said.
Mueller said he is worried that some patent owners are playing games with open source: “There is always a risk that some large patent owners, several of which are sponsors of the OSDL, have a hidden agenda to effectively control open source with the power of their patent portfolios.”
After all, Mueller pointed out, while IBM was pledging 500 patents to open source, the company was simultaneously lobbying to legalize software patents in Europe.
The European Parliament finally rejected American-style patents in July.