IBM, Sony, Novell start Linux patent sharing project

The biggest fish in the Linux pond have established a new collaborative patent sharing model in order to promote innovation and open source technology. The participants of the new Open Invention Network (OIN) include IBM, Sony, Philips, Novell, and Redhat.

In recent years, software innovation has been stifled by increasingly draconian intellectual property laws, and exploitative litigation. In this brave new world where companies wield dictatorial power over consumers and abuse patents to eliminate competition, open source software needs all the legal help it can get. A fat patent portfolio can provide leverage in intellectual property negotiations, and cross-licensing agreements have become common in the software development world. Open source software developers traditionally shun patents, which makes it difficult for them to engage in cross-licensing agreements of their own. Despite the Free Software Foundation’s outright condemnation of the entire patent system, many members of the open source community have expressed an interest in various patent sharing models. These models could potentially give developers the ability to negotiate access to other patented technologies through cross-licensing.

The OIN patents are available, royalty-free, to anyone that agrees not to use Linux-related patents against other OIN participants. Any company that wishes to take advantage of the OIN patents would effectively have to make their own Linux-related intellectual properties available to the open source community. The OIN will stimulate Linux development and derail lawsuits that could potentially harm Linux and companies that rely upon Linux technologies. OIN chief executive and former IBM vice president of intellectual property, Jerry Rosenthal, feels that the OIN’s goals are necessary for Linux innovation to continue unimpeded: Open collaboration is critical for driving innovation, which fuels global economic growth. Impediments to collaboration on the Linux operating system seriously jeopardize innovation. A new model of intellectual property management for Linux must be established to maintain advances in software innovation – regardless of the size or type of business or organization.

The prospect of royalty-free patent availability probably has more than a few intellectual property lawyers scratching their heads, but if the patent sharing model leads to an escalation in Linux adoption rates, the financial benefits for OIN participants could be substantial. If the OIN can successfully demonstrate that innovation is more profitable than litigation, collaborative patent sharing may become a new trend in intellectual property negotiations. The efforts of the OIN are also very positive for consumers, who will benefit from better open source software and a wider variety of choices in the software market. Rosenthal says:

Open Invention Network is not focused on income or profit generation with our patents, but on using them to promote a positive, fertile ecosystem for the Linux operating system and to drive innovation and choice into the marketplace.

In the absence of much needed patent system reforms, will this new patent sharing initiative promote innovation and push Linux further into the mainstream? Will other companies agree to participate in the patent sharing process?


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